Tanya Pomerleau, an English language arts teacher at Bath Middle School, discusses a reading assignment from “Fever 1793.” Photo courtesy of Lindsey Goudreau

BATH — When Tanya Pomerleau, an English language arts teacher at Bath Middle School, picked up a book about the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 Philadelphia, she knew she needed to use it as a teaching tool. That book sparked a renewed sense of hope and perseverance in her eighth grade students who are trying to wade through a year tossed on its head by a virus.

“I didn’t know if I would be teaching my students remotely this year or in person, but one thing I did know was that they needed an experience that was relevant to what they were experiencing and would inspire them to innovate and get through this very challenging time,” said Pomerleau.

“Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson describes the arrival of the yellow fever in Philadelphia at a time when very little was understood about its transmission or how to cure it, leading students to draw quick parallels between yellow fever and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some of them made connections when I read aloud a journal entry from 1793,” said Pomerleau. “There was silence in the room and they initially thought that the entry was about today.”

“Yellow fever is kind of like COVID-19 because they were all afraid of each other,” said Gage Suitter, 13, said of 1793 Philadelphians. “They stayed in their houses and didn’t go outside for fear of catching a deadly illness. That is kind of like what last spring felt like. Fear was spreading faster than the disease itself, just like yellow fever.”

“So many people back then left their family and friends and it ruined relationships and an entire community,” said Niesa Wallace, 13. “Now, we are distancing socially. Not only can we not see people but we are scared to get too close. In a time when we are distancing each other physically we need to connect emotionally because we need each other to be stronger and get through it.”

According to the World Health Organization, yellow fever stems from parts of tropical and sub-tropical South America and Africa and is transmitted through infected mosquitos. Symptoms of the disease include fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and jaundice, giving it it’s name.

Riley Walters, a Bath Middle School eighth grader, shows a copy of “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Goudreau

Anna Barabe, 13, said people who moved out of downtown Philadelphia to the rural countryside to escape the disease, reminded her of what’s happening in Maine now.

“This actually contained the illness back then, because it was one mosquito species that was causing it,” Barabe said of people moving out of Philadelphia. “When they left the mosquito behind they left the illness behind. With us, people moving to Maine from other states and cities that have higher numbers of Covid-19, puts us at great risk and spreads the disease.”

In the summer of 1793, an estimated 11,000 people in Philadelphia had contracted yellow fever and 5,000 people died, roughly 10% of the city’s population, before the cold weather wiped out the offending mosquito population.

Although yellow fever incited fear and confusion through 1793 Philadelphia, students said they felt comforted to learn the U.S. has overcome pandemics before, so they have faith it will happen again.

“They need evidence that we can get through hard things and that there is light on the other side of this,” said Pomerleau. “This is definitely a different kind of grit than I thought I would be teaching my students this year but it is important and they are demonstrating resilience and independence in ways that I have never seen students do in the past.”

“It’s a dark time, but we did it before in 1793 and we can get through it,” said Wallace. “We need to come together and support each other emotionally even though we can’t do it physically.”

Several of Pomerleau’s students connected a quote from “Fever 1793” — “Will you fold or will you innovate?” — to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Pomerleau’s students said adapting to part time in-person and online learning and sitting back while sports and other extracurriculars were cancelled hasn’t been easy. However, they said they understand those sacrifices, from missing their basketball season to wearing a mask in school, help keep their community safe.

“I am an athlete, it’s kind of my thing, and it was devastating to have my seasons cancelled last year,” said Lydia Brown, 13. “The extracurriculars that teens participate in are a huge part of their identity and social life. Losing that made me feel a little lost.”

“Any other year would be more social and fun,” said Suitter. “We would be getting ready to play basketball and just be a kid. We’re missing so many milestones and opportunities to make connections and get to know ourselves. This is really hard for teens but we are willing to do anything that will protect our parents and grandparents, and this too will be over soon.”

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