Looking Back to the Future: Coping with an epidemic

It was 5.30 am when the taxi arrived to collect me for a trip to Auckland Domestic for the first flight to Wellington for a meeting. This particular driver lives close by to me so he is pleased to have this early morning fare.

“And where are we going to this morning?” he asks.

“Wellington,” I reply and in answer to what takes me there I inform him that I am headed to a meeting of the Board of Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu. 

“That’s the NZ Correspondence School,” I explain thinking that I am being helpful. And with that a conversation lasting the length of the distance to the airport is kicked off.

“Back in 1947 I was a pupil of the Correspondence School,” he tells me.

“Where did you live?” I asked helpfully suggesting some options including a lighthouse, sheep station and a couple of other remote locations that typically were the staple diet of the Correspondence School.

“No, none of those. I lived at home in Auckland and at the time every school child in New Zealand was enrolled with the Correspondence School. It was the time of the poliomyelitis epidemic at its height in 1947 – 1948. Our school finished early for the year in 1947 and was closed along with all the primary schools at the beginning of 1948 to be opened when the Government felt it was safe.”

Poliomyelitis was also known as “infantile paralysis” as it predominantly struck the younger members of the community. The closing of the primary schools meant that only primary students had to work differently. The closures did not affect the older students (secondary) or adults.

At this point the cab driver became quite animated.

“Our mother was supposed to supervise us and I guess she did a good job. We were not always willing students because we were aware of what could happen when our teachers received those green canvas envelopes to mark our work. But mother was astute in managing her class of the three of us! Our envelopes were delivered to our house by our teacher, I think she did this for all our class – I was in Standard 5.”

I asked about the teachers and how they coped.

“That was the thing that we thought was amusing,” came back the retort. “All the teachers had to go to their school each day and sit at their desk during school hours, marking the work that had been handed in – and there were reports that Department of Education officials were occasionally assigned to make visits to see that this was being enforced.”

In time schools were opened when vaccines were available and finally the Sabin Oral vaccines made universally available and this kick polio to touch thank goodness.

Some interesting parallels between 1947 and 2020 emerge. Seventy-three years between the Polio epidemic and the Covit pandemic would see procedures that bore similarities the one to the other. Materials were distributed – green canvas envelopes on the one hand and multicoloured material from the cloud on the others. Teachers played a central role at all levels with students at different levels.

For both the 1947 Polio and the 2020 Covit epidemics the New Zealand Correspondence School (renamed Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu by 2020) was able to meet the curriculum needs of the school system. In the case of 1947 the Correspondence School was able to increase the range of materials and with it a strenuous programme of 40 radio classes each week. In 2020 Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu was equipped to support the Ministry of Education with the provision of programmes of learning for all levels of the school system.

(Stuart Middleton is a member of the Board of Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu.)

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