A history lesson on COVID-related school closures in Michigan

Most students in Michigan endured remote instruction for more than the three months Whitmer admits to

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently said her COVID-19 policies forced Michigan students to miss only three months of school. This came in response to claims by Republican challenger Tudor Dixon that students experienced years of online learning under the governor’s watch.

Both candidates are exaggerating, as the record lines up in the middle: Most students were out of school longer than three months, but not many had to learn remotely for longer than a year.

Whitmer prohibited all schools from operating in person for the last three months of the 2019-2020 school year. She announced on March 12, 2020, that all schools must close from March 16 to April 5. Then the governor issued a new executive order a few weeks later, closing schools for the rest of the school year.

The governor was initially optimistic about schools reopening in fall 2020. On June 17, 2020, she said, “Our intent is to resume in-person instruction.” A couple weeks later, she released the Return to School Roadmap that said schools located in a phase four region, as defined in her reopening plan, could offer in-person instruction, which at the time meant all schools could.

(The governor’s reopening plan actually said that schools in a phase four region must stay closed. In-person learning was only permitted in phase five. But this was not the first nor the last time the governor would deviate from her own plan — she had permitted restaurants to reopen earlier than it allowed.)

This optimism faded fast, however.

COVID-19 cases rose in late June, and an outbreak at an East Lansing bar received significant attention, including from the governor. She responded in early July by forcing indoor bars to close and instituting criminal penalties for not wearing a mask in indoor public spaces. Whitmer then raised concerns about opening schools in the fall, stating, “On the trajectory we’re on … [reopening schools] is very much in question.”

This concern spread to high school sports. The governor told the Michigan High School Athletic Association to consider postponing fall sports to the spring, a move that would affect about 70,000 high school athletes. On July 31, the governor issued a new executive order that, according to the Detroit Free Press, “ended football this fall and halted volleyball, girls swimming and diving and boys soccer.” The MHSAA announced two weeks later that football would be postponed until spring 2021.

The Michigan Legislature, in the meantime, was finalizing the state budget for K-12 schools. Lawmakers wanted to require schools to provide full-time, in-person learning for K-5 students as a condition of receiving state funds. Whitmer strictly opposed this and appeared ready to return to remote life. On Aug. 5, for instance, she stopped doing in-person press conferences, forcing reporters to join via Zoom.

The governor got her way on the budget, which let schools remain fully remote and still get paid. Michigan’s two large teachers unions supported the arrangement, despite still opposing “any plan that allow[ed] schools to meet in person.” Teachers appeared persuasive, as one media outlet reported in mid-July that “many districts, facing pressure from teachers … are starting with remote-only instruction due to COVID-19.”

While most schools prepared for online instruction, high school sports moved in the other direction. The athletic association changed its tune after hearing reports of football players trying to transfer to Indiana and Ohio schools, and ads for private football leagues surfaced. The association started advocating for fall sports. Whitmer was called a roadblock to this effort, commenting on Aug. 24 that she was glad the association postponed football to the spring, calling the sport inherently risky.

But Whitmer promptly changed her mind. Thousands of coaches, players and families rallied at the Michigan Capitol on Aug. 28, demanding the governor let them play. The superintendent of Detroit’s public schools made the same request.

Less than three weeks after postponing the sport to the spring, the athletic association asked the governor to allow football in the fall. She completed the 180-degree turn on Sept. 3, issuing a new executive order that permitted all fall high school sports.

The kids could now play together, but most were still not allowed to learn together. Most students started the 2020-21 school year remotely. Just half of Michigan school districts decided to offer a full-time, in-person option, according to the COVID School Data Hub. But larger districts were more likely than others to be remote, which meant two-thirds of Michigan students were stuck with virtual or hybrid instruction at the beginning of the school year.

COVID-19’s spread increased after the school year began, and Whitmer reversed course on her decision to let local officials make decisions about school closures. She issued orders through the state health department that required all high schools to close for another month, from Nov. 18 to Dec. 20. The orders had a ripple effect.

According to research by Michigan State University, the portion of school districts operating fully remote for all grades tripled in December 2020.

The governor quickly changed course, again. Just a month after forcing schools to close for a second time, Whitmer acknowledged the importance of in-person learning and encouraged, but did not require, schools to provide it by March 2021. COVID-19’s spread at the time was about three times higher than it was when the governor nixed the Legislature’s plan to require in-person learning. Nearly all school districts gradually reopened for the last half of the 2020-21 school year.

A look back at the summer and fall of 2020 finds a hectic time for students and their parents.

Official plans proved short-lived, policy reversals were common, and families faced months of uncertainty about important elements of their lives. Unpacking it all shows that most students in Michigan were out of school for longer than three months due to Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies.

The ramifications of these policies are just now starting to become known.

Michael Van Beek is director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.