Covid-19 is not the first pandemic that North Toronto has had to contend with. Spanish Flu, which infected almost a third of the world’s population between February 1918 and April 1920, hit home for the school that had grown from five to 204 students over the course of its first decade.
The school started out in 1910 as two drafty rooms above the North Toronto Town Hall on the northwest corner of Yonge Street and Montgomery Avenue. Students were presided over by George Reed, who would go on to become NT’s first principal. The area was growing rapidly, and many parents wanted their children to receive a higher education. A second teacher, Curtiss Nelson, was hired in 1911, and he was joined shortly thereafter by Miss Scanlon, a Moderns teacher.
By 1912, NT had 95 students, a fourth teacher, and occupied the entire top floor of the Town Hall. It was clear from the cramped conditions that a new space was needed. The cornerstone was laid on December 2, 1912, and the building was completed and opened in the spring of 1913, one year shy of the start of the First World War.
The war had a significant effect on the school. The Modern Languages teacher, Mr. Clark, started the first Cadet Corps in 1914, and interest in the Cadets soared. Students organized dances and concerts to raise money for the war effort. They also formed knitting and sewing groups to fill packages to send overseas. Many of the boys were eager to join the services and do their duty. Eight of the 95 North Toronto students who fought in the war lost their lives.
The war, however, was not the only event that claimed the lives of North Toronto community members. Mr. Nelson, the second teacher hired for the school, died from Spanish Flu in the winter of 1919.
The public health advice in 1918 was similar to what we are being told in 2020. And, according to Jenna Mlynaryk and Denise Makovac in Looking back: The 1918 flu pandemic and its impact on education in Ontario, public health authorities also did their best to keep schools open. The view was that children were more well-supervised at school, and less likely to infect one another in the classroom.
Schools in “Toronto relied on daily inspections of students to identify new cases,” wrote Mlynaryk and Markovac. But there were forced closures, particularly during prolonged outbreaks and harsh winters, and this hindered student progress.
“In Ontario, summer exams were pushed back two weeks in order to give teachers and students more time to prepare, and examiners were instructed to ‘bear in mind the distracting conditions of the year’ while grading. Even for Ontario schools that remained open, attendance and student enrollment dropped significantly due to the influenza epidemic well into 1919.”
Over a hundred years later, the Toronto District School Board also saw a drop in enrolment due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In mid October, the board reported that there were 5,500 fewer students enrolled in classes compared to what it had expected for the 2020-2021 school year. However, secondary school enrolment was only off by 800 students, while elementary school enrolment was off by 4,700 students. North Toronto saw approximately 80% of its students return to the school for in-person learning.
Thanks to Nancy Baines, who wrote “In The Beginning: 1909-1920” in Hail! North Toronto: Celebrating a Century, which provided much of the source material for this piece.