Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer claimed Tuesday that Michigan students were only kept out of classrooms "for three months." But many students struggled with remote learning for more than a year, and Whitmer encouraged school closures even after her shutdown orders expired.
During a debate against Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, Whitmer minimized the prevalence of remote learning in Michigan schools during the coronavirus pandemic. "Kids were out for three months," the Democrat claimed, seemingly referring to her initial orders that shuttered schools in 2020 from mid-March to early June. Months later, however, Whitmer's health department again suspended in-person high school classes for a three-week period starting November 15, 2020. And in April 2021, Whitmer urged schools to shut down for another two weeks, citing "alarming" virus numbers.
Beyond the Democrat's shutdown orders and recommendations, many Michigan students were forced to learn remotely for a considerably longer timetable than the one Whitmer cited Tuesday. Schools in Detroit and Grand Rapids, for example, remained closed for most of the 2020-21 school year, while students in Ann Arbor and Flint entered 2022 with remote instruction. That's in part because Whitmer rebuffed calls from state Republicans to require Michigan school districts to offer an in-person learning option for K-5 students. Instead, Whitmer's plan allowed districts to return to the classroom—or not—on their own accord, a decision the Democrat defended in early 2021 after some districts failed to develop an in-person option. "You know what, I'm not going to second-guess individual districts," Whitmer said at the time.
Dixon has spent much of her campaign attacking Whitmer's response to COVID-19, and Tuesday night was no different. After Whitmer's "three month" school closure remark, Dixon accused the Democrat of not "paying attention to what was actually happening." Dixon continued to highlight the exchange in post-debate media appearances, suggesting she hopes the issue will propel her to victory in a race that's tightened in recent weeks.
"We even had schools that were closed this year. This is shocking to me that [Whitmer] thinks schools were only closed for three months—or maybe she thinks she can convince you that schools were only closed for three months," Dixon said during the debate. "But you know better, because your students are the ones that are desperately behind."
More than two years after Whitmer's first school shutdown, remote learning's startling impact on Michigan students is now clear. According to the latest "Nation's Report Card," which the Department of Education released Monday, Michigan's fourth- and eighth-graders rank in the bottom half of the country in both reading and math. Fourth-grade reading scores were especially poor—they marked the lowest levels seen in Michigan in three decades. Only seven states fared worse than Michigan in fourth-grade reading, the report shows.
Whitmer, whose campaign did not return a request for comment, rose to national prominence during the pandemic's onset after her stringent lockdown orders earned her praise among prominent Democrats and liberal media outlets—attention that even landed Whitmer an August 2020 meeting with then-candidate Joe Biden to discuss becoming his running mate. As the pandemic went on, however, many Michiganders soured on Whitmer's COVID response, citing the Democrat's decisions to arbitrarily close local businesses and require nursing homes to accept positive coronavirus patients who were discharged from hospitals.
Whitmer's pandemic woes followed her into 2021, when the Democrat broke her own COVID rules by holding a large, maskless dinner party at a Michigan State University bar. Whitmer's table included 13 diners despite a statewide rule that forbade dining indoors with more than 6 people. Whitmer also pledged to give back a portion of her salary for the duration of the pandemic, though she stopped the donations after a mere five months—even as her gathering and mask restrictions dragged on for more than a year.
Whitmer has long held a polling lead over Dixon, but that lead has shrunk with Election Day fast approaching. An October Trafalgar Group poll, for example, shows Whitmer and Dixon in a virtual tie, with both candidates receiving 48 percent of the vote after rounding. The pair will face off at the polls on Nov. 8.