In response to her campaign opponent Tudor Dixon’s claim that students were kept out of schools, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asserted in the final gubernatorial debate that “kids were out for three months.” The governor later backtracked by saying that she was only referring to the closures mandated directly by her administration, but even this claim doesn’t hold water.
Whitmer may not remember exactly how long kids were kept out of schools, but Michigan parents and students sure do. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer announced on March 12, 2020, that schools would be closed. According to Ballotpedia, Michigan was the first state to announce such closures. Schools remained shuttered for the rest of the school year, as the rest of the state was kept locked down.
Parents faced a great deal of uncertainty in the summer of 2020 about the upcoming school year. Whitmer released a plan for reopening schools at the end of June. It said in-person instruction would only be allowed for schools located in an area the governor determined was at a “phase 4” safety level. At the same time, Republicans in the Legislature introduced a proposal that would require in-person instruction for grades K-5.
Neither the governor nor the Legislature got their wish. As part of a compromise when passing the budget to fund schools, Republicans dropped the provision to require K-5 in-person and left the decision to local school and health officials. Whitmer simply abandoned her school reopening plan and permitted schools to operate however they wanted no matter what “phase” they were in.
When the school year kicked off in September 2020, just over a third of students in the state, about 460,000, had a full-time, in-person learning option. The other 65% of students were stuck in a hybrid or fully remote program. That’s according to the COVID-19 School Data Hub created by Brown University economist Emily Oster.
This divide only worsened in November after Whitmer, through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, issued an emergency order that created a three-week “pause” on an assortment of activities, including shutting down in-person learning in high schools and colleges. The governor later extended her second lockdown for 12 more days, but eventually lifted the closure mandate right as schools were planning to go on winter break in late December.
The closures weren’t limited to high school students. Many districts ended up shuttering in-person for elementary and middle school students as well. By December, three out of every four students in the state were doing remote or hybrid learning, according to the COVID-19 School Data Hub. While schools could technically reopen after winter break, many districts, such as Midland and Grand Blanc, decided to extend virtual instruction for weeks after the New Year.
To Whitmer’s credit, she did call on schools in January 2021 to reopen their doors to in-person learning by March. But she did nothing more to encourage or require it.
Some of the state’s largest districts, including Lansing, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo remained virtual or hybrid for the entire 2020-2021 school year.
While many districts finally resumed in-person learning in the fall of 2021, that didn’t stop districts from continuing to close their doors. Detroit Public Schools went virtual for an entire month in January 2022. Flint Community Schools, which received an additional $50,000 per student in COVID relief funds, were still doing the on-again, off-again routine earlier this year.
It’s clear now that students suffered academically from these school closures, but parents suffered, too. Many fought for their kids’ right to in-person learning. Nearly all of them endured the uncertainty and forced “flexibility” that the governor’s orders created.
It’s true that Whitmer left it to local school districts to decide if they would provide full-time, in-person learning to students last school year. Two opposing sides emerged from the resulting debate about school openings: parents, who believed their children were best served by in-person schooling, and public-school officials, who faced pressure from school employees and their unions. The governor chose a side, and it wasn’t the parents’.
Parents know what they and especially their children suffered from prolonged school closures. They won’t forget anytime soon.
Originally published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Republished with permission.
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