School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have had a profound negative impact on students’ academic skills, according to a new national report, and falling scores have strong implications for Michigan.
The latest report on the National Assessment of Academic Progress was released on Thursday. The document, also known as the national report card, showed a sharp decline in student achievement between 2020 and 2022.
Although national scores in math and reading gradually declined between 2012 and 2020, the fall accelerated sharply during the COVID panic. Reading scores fell five points over the two-year period, while math scores fell seven points.
The lowest performing students experienced a greater drop in their scores, but no group of students showed an increase. NEAP’s Midwest cluster, which includes Michigan and eleven other states, fell more than the national average — down seven points in reading and nine points in math.
A Michigan lawmaker used the news to slam Republicans.
“Expect the MI GOP to use low national test scores, which came out today, to bludgeon Dems to keep kids safe during COVID. However, they can’t hide the fact that they love online learning (they call it “teaching value” – because it’s cheaper!)…until ‘they don’t,’ tweeted Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia.
But in Michigan, it was elected Democratic leaders, along with teachers’ union officials, who made the decision to close classrooms during the pandemic.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order in March 2020 ordering the closure of all schools, citing the pandemic. She announced the following month that all schools would close for the rest of the year and pushed to keep school doors locked.
When former President Donald Trump announced that all schools should work to open in the fall of 2020 so students don’t fall behind, the backlash from educators in Michigan was immediate.
Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, wrote that school workers were “angry that they hear national ‘leaders’ like President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demanding that schools reopen regardless of science, falsely claiming that children do not get sick and are “virtually immune” to the coronavirus.
Herbart threatened legal action, saying a lack of funding was preventing schools from reopening.
When Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, warned of the academic and mental health consequences students would face if classrooms remained closed, the Detroit Federation of Teachers threatened to trigger a illegal strike.
The union said teachers should not return to the classroom until Whitmer’s final post-pandemic phase plan is in place. This phase would have kept school buildings closed until the number of infected people was close to zero. Had the district followed through on this plan, students still would not have returned to in-person learning.
It wasn’t until January 2021 that Whitmer agreed to a plan to reopen schools – in March of that year. Whitmer also vetoed a budget proposal that would have used $155 million of the state’s $6 billion federal COVID-19 relief fund to provide parents with $1,000 for tutoring, aimed at preventing the learning loss, according to Mackinac Center education policy specialist.
The closures have disproportionately harmed minority students. Nationally, black students saw the largest declines — six points in reading and 13 points in math. In Michigan, the districts with the most black students were also those that fought to remain closed for long periods, even as other districts reopened.
Flint’s community schools have remained closed longer than any other district during the pandemic. It received $156 million in federal COVID assistance, by far the most of any district in the state, but it remained closed to in-person learning.
As previously reported by Michigan Capitol Confidential, the school district had less than six months of in-person learning since March 2020, in January. Its doors remained completely closed until March 22, 2021. The district uses a balanced schedule, and it closed schools again in August 2021 because it was late installing air conditioning.
Schools in Flint have been closed again after the Oxford school fired on ‘an abundance of caution’ and again, officials citing teacher burnout.
Declining graduation rates appear to be a consequence of the closures in Flint. In 2019, the graduation rate was 64.8%, with 19.8% of students dropping out of school. Graduation fell to 52.33% in 2020 while the dropout rate increased to 25.58%. In 2021, only 46% of students have graduated; however, dropouts decreased to 21.8%.
Detroit’s graduation rate in 2019 was 75.84%, with a dropout rate of 11.71%. Most of the students were still in school, but were unable to graduate on time.
In 2020, the graduation rate decreased to 72.45% while the dropout rate increased to 13.23%. The district saw a substantial decline in 2021 to a graduation rate of 64.53%, a decline of nearly 8 percentage points. The dropout rate increased again to 14.45%.
The Flint and Detroit school districts, as well as the Detroit Federation of Teachers, did not respond to requests for comment.