Calling Off School for Dust

Each winter, students all across the North secretly – or openly – hope for snowstorms so that school will be called off.

During the Depression, schools across the Plains sent students home because of the dust storms. Some school administrators were worried about what might happen to the students’ health. There had been cases of “dust pneumonia” where dust clogged up the lungs just like the disease. Other administrators and teachers, especially in the southern Plains, knew that people had gotten lost in dust storms when visibility went to zero.

Don McGinley remembers being let out of the Ogallala, Nebraska, school because of a dust storm. It was so bad that his mother thought the world might be coming to an end.

In Telling Tales Out of School, a book by the National Retired Teachers Association, Taleta Elfeldt says, “One day in March 1934, my beginners were busy reading. All of a sudden there was total darkness. It was as though a huge curtain had been drawn around our building… I realized a dust storm had hit because soon the room was filled with a ‘fog of dust’ … We teachers walked home holding wet towels over our faces in order to breathe.”

Other rural teachers talked about lighting lanterns in the middle of the day so that children could see to recite their lessons. And sometimes, children were kept in the schoolhouse all night to make sure they wouldn’t get lost walking home or be overcome by the dust.

The dust was dangerous, and schools were taking no chances.

Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.


                

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