Four years after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered schools closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, the devastating impact of that decision on Michigan students is coming into focus.

Data complied on academic achievement, COVID rates, public health, school attendance and other metrics in recent years is exposing the high cost and limited benefits of the government-imposed school closures, according to an analysis from The New York Times.

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“Today, there is broad acknowledgement among many public health and education experts that extended school closures did not significantly stop the spread of Covid, while the academic harms for children have been large and long-lasting,” according to the news site.

In Michigan, Whitmer shuttered schools on March 16, 2020, and did not recommend they reopen to in-person learning until January 2021, with a hard deadline of March 1. Since, the state has received $5.63 billion in federal learning recovery funds, and has spent all but about $1 billion.

The reason Michigan students continue to lag behind pre-pandemic performance centers on how long they were forced into remote learning, with those out of the classroom the longest suffering the most learning loss.

“There’s fairly good consensus that, in general, as a society, we probably kept kids out of school longer than we should have,” Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, told the Times.

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Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which samples fourth- and eighth-grade students nationwide, shows a direct correlation between time spent in remote or hybrid instruction during the 2020-21 school year and student performance, even when accounting for other factors like poverty.

The average drop in math scores for those who spent less than 10% of the year in remote learning was .35 years of instruction, compared to .57 years for those who were mostly remote.

“The most recent test scores, from spring 2023, show that students, overall, are not caught up from their pandemic losses, with larger gaps remaining among students that lost the most ground to begin with,” according to the Times. “Students in districts that were remote or hybrid the longest — at least 90 percent of the 2020-21 school year — still had almost double the ground to make up compared with students in districts that allowed students back for most of the year.”

The dynamic in Michigan was evident in a February report by researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities that showed despite statewide achievement increasing by 7% of a grade level in math and 1% in reading over the last year, full recovery from the pandemic could take decades, The Detroit News reports.

In districts like Kalamazoo, Lansing, Detroit, Portage and Ann Arbor, where unions pushed to delay in-person instruction, students remain 80% of a grade behind 2019 achievement levels in math. In many rural districts that reopened more quickly, math scores have already eclipsed pre-pandemic levels, according to the Education Recovery Scorecard that tracks performance in 30 states.

NEAP data shows Whitmer’s unilateral decision to close schools to in-person learning contributed to fourth-grade reading scores plummeting from 32nd nationally in 2019 to 43rd in 2022.

“Latino students, Black students, students with disabilities and students from low-income backgrounds were falling at least 12 percentage points below the statewide average in terms of third grade reading,” Jen DeNeal, director of policy research for The Education Trust-Midwest, told Michigan Advance in January.

Only 16% of black third graders tested proficient in reading in 2022, a figure that’s more than 10% behind students still learning English at 25.4%. Statewide, only about 42% of third-graders tested proficient in reading in 2022.

Thomas Kane, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, noted that students who suffered the most from the government-imposed school closures are generally from urban and low-income districts.

“No one wants to leave poor kids footing the bill, but that is the path Michigan is on,” Kane told the News. “With federal relief dollars drying up, state leaders must ensure the remaining dollars expand learning opportunities in summer 2024 and through tutoring and after-school contracts next year.”

The bottom line is the situation illustrates the 2024 reality of Whitmer’s 2020 decision.

According to the News: “If Michigan continues improving at last year’s rate, full recovery will require five additional years for students to recover in math and decades to recover in reading.”