Library of Michigan: Whitmer’s school closures for coronavirus are historic, unprecedented

By: - March 16, 2020 9:35 am

Front page of the Jan. 27, 1978 Detroit Free Press during the blizzard | courtesy of the Library of Michigan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order last week calling for all Michigan private and public schools to close beginning Monday through April 5 is perhaps the biggest development during the current COVID-19 pandemic in the state.

“This is a necessary step to protect our kids, our families and our overall public health,” Whitmer said on Thursday. “I am working with partners across state government to ensure educators, parents and students have the support they need during this time, and to ensure our children who rely on school for meals have access to food. I know this will be a tough time, but we’re doing this to keep the most people we can safe. I urge everyone to make smart choices during this time and to do everything they can to protect themselves and their families.”

But is the governor’s move unprecedented?

Likely so, according to research the Library of Michigan did in response to a request from the Michigan Advance. The Library of Michigan also provided the Advance with files of news clips and manuals.

“After a preliminary review of resources here at the Library of Michigan, we are inclined to believe that this is the first time in the history of our state that all Michigan schools have been closed for any significant period,” Adam Oster, community engagement librarian, told the Advance.

1918 report of the Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction | courtesy of the Library of Michigan

After combing through several sources, including the state Board of Education minutes, and state manuals that included executive orders and other directives, Oster said that the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic and the notorious blizzard of 1978 were huge public health and safety situations. So were significant events like the Great Michigan Fire of 1871, a series of simultaneous forest blazes that affected 2.5 million acres of state land, or the H1N1 flu virus that struck in 2009.

But none of them resulted in a statewide call to close schools for multiple weeks. 

Whitmer declared a state of emergency last week and also has taken other big actions to respond to COVID-19, including limiting gatherings to 250 people or less. In her latest move, as the Advance reported, bars and restaurants will only be open for takeout beginning at 3 p.m. Monday. 

In 1918, during the influenza scare, then-Gov. Albert E. Sleeper, a two-term Republican, and the state Board of Health did order the closure of all theaters, movies, churches, lodge meetings, political events and all gatherings which could legitimately be construed as non-essential. However, schools were not included in that order, Oster pointed out.

“In conclusion, we feel the recent statewide closure of schools is an unprecedented event in Michigan’s history,” Oster said.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.