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This Week In Illinois History: Remote Learning By Radio (September 13, 1937)

Remote Learning by Radio
Children in Chicago getting their school instruction by radio during a polio outbreak in 1937.

A deadly, contagious disease. Parents afraid. Schools shut down. Students’ only option? Remote learning. This was a polio outbreak in Chicago in 1937. And kids engaged in remote learning with 1937’s most advanced technology: the radio.

Just before the school year, an outbreak of polio or infantile paralysis struck the city. The disease caused everything from mild flu-like symptoms to sudden paralysis and death. By September, 228 children had contracted the virus and 18 had died.

Because polio mostly affected children under 13, the Chicago Board of Education closed all schools up to eighth grade. High schools remained opened. Six radio stations donated their morning hours to educational programs. Remote radio learning began on Sept. 13. Each program lasted 15 minutes and included homework assignments. Schedules were printed in daily newspapers. Students were advised to keep their work in notebooks and to plan on being tested when school resumed.

Remote Learning Radio Schedule
Chicago newspapers ran daily broadcast schedules for remote school lessons. This schedule is from the September 23, 1937 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Over 350,000 students took part in two full weeks of radio learning. Effective quarantining and cooler weather led cases to decline, and schools reopened on Sept. 27.

Chicago educators saw the program as a success and worked with local stations to form the Chicago Radio Council. It produced instructional programs that teachers could play in their classrooms. In 1943, the council launched an education-only station, WBEZ. It still operates today as Chicago’s NPR station.

Polio outbreaks continued to shutter schools until the first polio vaccine became available in 1955. Because of widespread use of the vaccine, the United States has been polio-free since 1979.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.