Why Whitmer’s call for in-person school matters

Whitmer said in her State of the State speech that “students belong in school,” and now wants districts to end virtual learning.

Gretchen Whitmer

Photo Credit: State of Michigan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fourth State of the State address was full of optimism and tones of bipartisanship. There was nothing all that shocking for a speech that kicks off an election year for the governor.

Overall, the point was to highlight things that — as the governor said — brings Michiganders together instead of those wedge issues that sort of define our politics these days. But that doesn’t mean the speech didn’t make some waves in at least one respect.

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There was a lot of discussion during and after the speech about what she had to say about school districts that are currently in virtual mode because of the omicron surge. 

“I want to be crystal clear. Students belong in school,” said Whitmer during her speech Wednesday night. “We know it’s where they learn best. Remote learning is not as fulfilling or conducive to a child’s growth. In-person learning is critical to social development and mental health. And that’s why we will do everything we can to keep kids in the classroom.”

Note that she said she wanted to be “crystal clear” at the beginning of that quote. But there were at least a few people that thought it wasn’t quite clear. Was she was calling on school districts that are now virtual to end remote learning and bring kids back to the classroom?

But if there was any confusion about that, it was short-lived. The governor joined WDET’s Stephen Henderson on Detroit Today the next morning. Henderson asked her directly “Are you calling on school districts that are using virtual now to end that and bring kids back into the classroom? Is that the message you want to you want to communicate to them?”

“Yes,” the governor responded.

Now, it’s important to note that it’s not really the governor’s call. In fact, Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders made a big compromise in 2020 that established that it is up to local districts to make those decisions. But some have argued that the governor’s rhetoric could have some influence over those decisions, and could have an impact on her relationships with teachers unions, other education groups, and voters who are caught up in this really difficult situation every day.

I want to be crystal clear. Students belong in school.” —Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The governor notes that 98% of all Michigan school districts are back to in-person instruction. But some big districts are still remote. They include Flint and Detroit, which is Michigan’s largest district. In-person learning is set to resume Jan. 31, according to the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s website.

Something important to consider when we ask ourselves why the governor might be adopting this stronger language now on reopening schools is that Republicans are finding that political attacks against Democrats saying that they’re harming kids by allowing virtual schooling is resonating with many voters. Whitmer’s rhetoric here certainly makes it tougher for the GOP to pin that on her in an election year.

Related: Whitmer calls on schools to go back to in-person instruction

As Gongwer Michigan’s Jordyn Hermani noted amid all of this, what’s missing in so much of this conversation is the “how” involved. How do we safely get kids back in class in a way that teachers, schools, students and parents are comfortable with and without widespread COVID-19 outbreaks making in-person instruction impossible? Without an actual plan, Hermani notes, this is really just a talking point.

The governor did say during her WDET appearance that she wants to work with those districts that are now virtual to find a way to support them so that they can get kids back in school. She has since met with Flint’s superintendent.

But for now, schools that are virtual haven’t yet budged, saying they continue to follow the advice of their local health experts. 

More from MichMash:

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  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
  • Cheyna Roth
    Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.