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Health, Havoc, and Hope: A Conversation with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Michiganders are fighting their own social, economic, and health battles. While each citizen is encouraged to be sympathetic to others’ fights while mostly focusing on their own, it is Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s job to oversee and uphold them all. As the leader of our state, a Forest Hills Public Schools Alumna, and a mother of two high schoolers, Governor Whitmer is taking her own battles, as well as the public’s, head-on. 

Though most of her time is allocated to tireless work for finding solutions to unprecedented issues, she and her Press Secretary, Chelsea Lewis, generously devoted fifteen minutes of their day to a conversation with the Hawk Herald. 

Especially with the recent extension to the stay-at-home order (which now is in effect until April 30th), Governor Whitmer is sympathetic to the population of high schoolers inhabiting more than 900 school districts statewide. “This is such an unprecedented time,” she said in regards to her biggest concerns for young Michiganders. As a mother of a high school senior, she is all too familiar with the concerns that many students and parents have at this time. “When you’re eighteen years old and this is how your senior year ends… I know that it’s really disorienting… and it’s stressful,” she says of what she’s witnessed from a mother’s perspective, asserting that many of the concerns she harbors for her daughters are “the same things that your parents are concerned about too.”

Governor Whitmer affirms that her family is dealing with the uncertain times similarly to how the rest of Michiganders are—by doing the best they can with what they have, all from the safety of their home. “We know that there are lots of things we can’t control right now other than mitigating… COVID-19 by staying home,” she claims of her current priorities. She advises that students focus on maintaining their grades and finishing the year strong, so we carry over successful momentum to the fall. 

Tangentially, as our return in the fall signifies the next time Michiganders will return to in-person learning, more questions arise concerning virtual education and the potential learning gap that may occur between school districts with different opportunities. To ameliorate this potential, Gov. Whitmer issued an executive order allowing local ISDs to determine appropriate learning plans unique to the diverse school districts. This, claimed Gov. Whitmer, would aid in making sure that all students’ needs would be met over the course of the next few months. “If I tried to determine one plan that I assumed would work for everyone…I would be leaving people behind. So I’m hopeful that this will help us meet our students’ needs, but I also recognize that we’re going to need to have additional support as we go back to school in the fall,” she stated. However, she also recognizes that with the economy at a halt, some “hard decisions” would have to be made in the future in order to make budget adjustments to prioritize additional supports.

Even so, with this fall on the horizon, Gov. Whitmer reinforced that the most important thing that students and their families can do is stay home in order to protect their own safety, as well as their communities. “Contrary to [the early assumptions], people of any age can get [COVID-19], and it can be deadly. You don’t know how your body is going to react to [it] and so that’s why we’re taking it so seriously and everyone of every age is asked to do their part by staying home,” she implored. While it is our human nature to be constantly moving, it is exceedingly important for citizens to cease our activity in order to speed up the return to normalcy. “One scientist observed that if everyone would just freeze in place for 14 days, COVID-19 would come sputtering to a halt,” said the governor, emphasizing the importance of social distancing. “Of course we’re humans, so we move around. We’re Americans, so we’re fiercely independent. We’re Michiganders so we’re used to doing what we want when we want… We really shouldn’t be doing any of those things right now. The longer that people continue to spend time together, the longer we’re going to be confronting this.”

Nevertheless, Whitmer knows that while staying home is certainly doing its part in aiding physical health, it is also beginning to take a toll on citizens’ mental health—particularly among Michigan high schoolers. When asked what advice she’d offer up to teenagers who are particularly struggling with isolation, she suggests reaching out and being mindful of others, while continuing to monitor the well being of ourselves. “I think to reach out… Get on a zoom call with some of your friends. Tell your parents if you’re struggling if you’re comfortable, and if not, to seek out a hotline and get someone that you can talk to. It’s hard. It’s hard for every one of us.” 

While as citizens it is important for us to remain knowledgeable about the darkness of our situation, we must recognize that politicians and front-liners such as Gov. Whitmer are without the luxury of being able to turn off the television and shut out the news whenever the situation becomes too heavy. Contrarily, in a position that demands her to be in-tune with the darkness consistently, she knows that it’s necessary to face the situation and maintain knowledge while understanding beyond the statistics. “We talk about the numbers of Michiganders [who’ve] passed away, and every once in a while it’s important to pause and recognize that they are people,” she stated solemnly. “Those are people who maybe went to church or went to their workplace and picked something up that someone had touched, and they lost their battle to COVID-19 and they’re gone, and they have family members who can’t even mourn together. It can be heavy, I have my moments sometimes… where it kind of hits me.” Even so, Whitmer firmly believes that acknowledging the severity of the situation must be balanced with occasional breaks from the gloom. “I think… that spending time away from it on occasion is really important. I had a Zoom chat with some friends of mine from high school (Forest Hills Central, class of 1989), and we were cracking up! It was fun to see people’s faces. We weren’t talking about what was happening right now and all the hard stuff that’s going on… that was nice.” Along with catching up with old friends and spending time with her family, Gov. Whitmer’s puppy Kevin serves as a beacon of light in these grave times, and even graced our Zoom interview with his joyous presence. 

As the elongated “stay-at-home” order goes into effect, Governor Whitmer insists that it’s important to keep in mind that our current situation is far from permanent. Though it’s easy to be burdened with the thought of activities that we are now unable to do, she knows that by staying home, we are undoubtedly making the best decision in the long run for the ultimate health and recovery of our state and nation. While at times our situation seems bleak, it’s important to continue “[Thinking] about some positives that are coming out of it—and maybe people can’t find a positive out of it and that’s okay too. This is tough,” she admitted. “But we’re going to be able to look back on this at some point. It’s temporary. It’s tough but temporary… There is hope. This will pass, and we will be able to think about football games [again] one day, and going out and hanging out with friends, or going to Lake Michigan and jumping in the water… Life’s going to be a little bit different for a while, even after we get through the crisis part of this, but we’re going to get through it and it’s going to be okay. In the long run, it’s just going to just be a chapter in what’s a much bigger story in your life.”

2 Comments

  1. Kathleen Devarenne Kathleen Devarenne

    Wow. This is a great article. What a great opportunity. You knocked it out of the park, Isabel!

  2. Mrs. Buchanan Mrs. Buchanan

    Great job Isabel! We are all very impressed with your dedication and your work!

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