Politics

Jill Biden Returns to In-Person Teaching

WASHINGTON — Jill Biden, the first lady, quietly started another school year as an English professor on Tuesday, returning to the physical classroom after a year of teaching remotely.

Dr. Biden, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught full-time as second lady throughout the Obama administration. As first lady, she is the first to balance her career with public-facing duties.

Those taking Dr. Biden’s classes will learn through a hybrid model, with at least half of the semester’s classes taking place in person, according to a schedule listed on the school’s website. All students are required to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Sending the first lady back into the classroom will reinforce President Biden’s promise that his administration can get students safely back into in-person learning, even as the Delta variant surges across the United States. It will also give one of the most influential people in the White House the ability to speak firsthand about the challenges administrators, teachers and students are facing.

Over the spring and summer, the administration sent Dr. Biden to states across America — including several deeply conservative ones — to push residents to wear masks and get vaccinated. During the short-lived period where health officials recommended that vaccinated Americans could remove their masks in public settings, Dr. Biden was the first administration official to do so in a high-profile fashion: She removed her mask while leaving her plane to visit a pop-up vaccination clinic in West Virginia.

At stops in other states, including Tennessee, Mississippi, Michigan and Alabama, Dr. Biden has also beseeched Americans to stop politicizing the virus.

“As we return to our classrooms this fall, it will take all of us coming together to keep our schools safe and open,” she wrote in an essay for Time magazine last week. “We must remember that our enemy is the virus, not one another.”

But the rise of the Delta variant — and the country’s reaction to another surge in deaths and illnesses from the coronavirus — shows how complicated sending students back to school is. Children under 12 cannot yet receive the vaccine, and pediatric hospitalizations for Covid-19 have soared over the summer, though questions remain about whether the Delta variant causes more serious illnesses in children than the original virus.

Governors in several states, including Florida, where the virus has hit hardest, have made it harder for school districts to enforce mask wearing. In Arizona, where school mask mandates are banned, thousands of students and teachers have had to go into quarantine.

Dr. Biden, for her part, has long been a proponent of returning to the classroom, and has used her role as first lady to highlight the work of school districts that stayed open throughout the pandemic to educate students using a hybrid model. In March, she and Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education, visited classrooms in Connecticut and Pennsylvania where students were wearing masks and sitting behind plastic dividers as they went about their day.

Beyond the many sanctioned interviews and appearances she has given on the subject, Dr. Biden has been fiercely protective of her life as a teacher. The East Wing offered no comment on her first day back on Tuesday.

“I can confirm that Jill is teaching and I think her doing so should be an inspiration to women everywhere and a message that no matter what your spouse may be doing, you can have your own career,” Jimmie McClellan, the dean of liberal arts at Northern Virginia Community College and Dr. Biden’s supervisor, wrote in an email this summer in response to a request to discuss the first lady’s work.

“Any spotlight should shine on what she does away from campus,” he wrote. “Here, she should have her peace.”

A longtime member of the National Education Association, Dr. Biden also promoted the administration’s efforts to push teachers to the front of the line to receive vaccines earlier this year, a decision that helped calm concerns among educators that they would be forced back to work without proper safeguards against the virus.

The president has promised to send children back to school this fall, and many students have already returned to classrooms. On Thursday, he is expected to give a speech on his administration’s efforts to “pull every lever to get the pandemic under control,” according to a statement released by the White House on Tuesday. Mr. Biden is expected to discuss school reopenings in detail in that speech.

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