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Whitmer, heed experts on in-person learning

Michigan’s students are struggling, and parents are worried. So are teachers, for that matter. And scientists. Doctors. Psychologists.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order last March to close school buildings across the state has had a devastating impact on student performance. Even now, as we rapidly approach the one-year anniversary of classroom closures, 136 school districts remain completely closed to in-person learning.

The science couldn’t be clearer, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. That’s why the governor’s refusal to stand up to a few political power-players in Lansing is so disappointing — and so dangerous.

Parents who’ve watched their children struggle, who’ve quit jobs to help them with their online learning, who’ve held their hands during psychiatric and counseling appointments, those parents are left hoping against hope that Gov. Whitmer will be as bold reopening classrooms as she was in closing them.

They’re pleading with her to reverse course, because her orders put their kids in crisis.

They are rallying in local communities, they’re sending letters to the governor and school boards by the thousands, and they’re begging leaders to open classrooms.

Parents aren’t the only ones concerned, though. Earlier this month, nearly 400 physicians, psychologists, and health care leaders in Southeast Michigan signed an open letter forcefully expressing their expert opinion that in-person learning is safe and that school closures are dangerous.

Polling released earlier this month showed 80% of voters worry about the impact it’s had on kids.

That matches the 80% of voters who told pollsters that schools should be reopened for in-person learning right now or quickly, as opposed to next fall.

Despite their pleas, one report indicates 136 school districts across Michigan have been closed since last March and still refuse to open for in-person learning, while students fall further behind.

One recent study from Stanford University concluded that, for many students, it will require years to make up for the learning they lost as a result of the governor’s shutdown order. If they do at all.

Parents feel unheard, but they have deeper concerns, too.

Reports across the state and the nation point to prolonged school closures as a contributing factor in accelerating rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, and pediatric emergency room visits among schoolaged children.

We’re in the middle of an exploding mental health crisis, with analysts reporting that “youth despair” is steadily worsening.

Pediatricians — the doctors who specialize in the health and wellbeing of our kids — have warned about these risk factors from the start. They certainly couldn’t have taken Gov. Whitmer by surprise.

As early as last June, physicians warned publicly that children and adolescents have “been placed at higher risk of morbidity and mortality from physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.”

The science, the doctors, the epidemiologists, and the experts aren’t split on this one. They’re all on the same page, and they have been since early last year. The risks associated with school closures, they’ve concluded, far outweigh the risks associated with COVID-19 in schools.

Opening schools shouldn’t be hard, and it shouldn’t be controversial.

Gov. Whitmer closed Michigan’s schools last year with a stroke of her pen. Students pay the price for that call every day, and too many kids’ futures have already been lost.

Parents like me only hope now that the governor will act as boldly to get kids back in the classroom as she did to lock them out of it — before it’s too late.

Beth DeShone is executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project.

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