Opinion | Gretchen Whitmer must think she’s the governor of Florida

[The Washington Post] Opinion | Gretchen Whitmer must think she’s the governor of Florida

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John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, wasn’t the only politician who got mixed up on a debate stage Tuesday night. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, seemed to confuse herself with Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.

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In an exchange with her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, over Whitmer’s draconian coronavirus policies, the governor claimed that in school shutdowns, “kids were out for three months.”

That was true … in Florida, not Michigan.

In July 2020, DeSantis ordered all Florida schools to reopen in the fall for full-time, in-person learning — including all public schools, public charter schools and private schools that accept state scholarship money. Schools were directed to provide all services required by law, including specialized instruction and services for students with learning disabilities, and to set up monitoring systems to make sure students were not falling behind academically.

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That decision spared Florida students from the catastrophic learning losses that have plagued children in many other parts of the country.

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Whitmer, by contrast, did the opposite: She signed an education package in August 2020 that did not require school districts to offer in-person learning to be eligible for state funding — leaving the decision up to local school districts and their teachers-union overlords.

As a result, the data-analytics company Burbio reported, a majority of Michigan schools were using virtual or hybrid learning at the start of the school year. Those that did start the year in-person received a directive in November from Whitmer’s health department ordering them to “end in-person classes.” It was not until Dec. 21, 2020, that her administration finally allowed — not required — schools to reopen for in-person learning.

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According to Chalkbeat Detroit, in January 2021, only 23 percent of Michigan schools were fully in-person. Detroit, the state’s largest school district, was fully remote until the last three months of the 2020-2021 academic year, which means Detroit students were out of school for a full year. The Ann Arbor school district stayed partly remote all the way to the start of 2022.

It was not until March 2021 that Whitmer finally signed a law requiring some Michigan school districts to offer in-person instruction in order to receive increased emergency pandemic funding. But even then, the law affected less than a third of Michigan schools and required only 20 hours of in-person instruction. And, the Associated Press reports, the law was “spearheaded by Republicans” in the state legislature, not by Whitmer.

Why would Whitmer lie about her record? Does she think Michigan parents didn’t notice that their kids were home, doing online school? Parents know exactly how long their kids were out of the classroom. They lived this — and their children are now living with the consequences.

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Test scores in Michigan plummeted. The National Assessment of Educational Progress — better known as the “Nation’s Report Card” — just revealed that fourth-grade math scores declined five points nationwide. But in Detroit, fourth-grade math scores fell 12 points — putting students 20 points below basic mastery of fundamentals.

Across Michigan, fourth-graders recorded their lowest reading scores in 30 years — wiping out three decades of reading progress. And a report from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative found that Michigan students who learned remotely for all or most of 2021 suffered far greater learning losses than those who were in classrooms.

The damage from these learning losses is irretrievable. If kids don’t learn to read and do basic math in younger grades, they can’t perform expected work in subsequent grades — and fall further and further behind.

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The cumulative damage may affect disadvantaged students for the rest of their lives. A study by professors from Yale, Northwestern the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Amsterdam projects that “one year of school closures will cost ninth graders in the poorest communities a 25% decrease in their post-educational earning potential.”

The denial of in-person learning also helped spark a children’s mental health crisis. One study found that 71 percent of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health, and 69 percent said the pandemic was the worst thing to happen to their child — citing social isolation, remote learning and excess screen time as most damaging to their children’s mental health. In 2020 mental health-related emergency room visits increased 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11, and 31 percent for those ages 12 to 17, compared with 2019.

The damage done by Whitmer’s lockdown policies to Michigan’s children is devastating. And by claiming that “kids were out for three months,” she adds insult to injury. Perhaps that’s why her race with Dixon is tightening. Michigan parents know that Whitmer kicked their kids out of school. On Nov. 8, they’ll have a chance to return the favor — by kicking her out of office.

Or, like so many others fleeing blue lockdown states, they could always move to Florida.

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