To all the teachers and students returning to school behind a Zoom screen this September, Dr. Jill Biden sees you. While on hiatus from her English professorship at Northern Virginia Community College to campaign with her husband, the former Second Lady recently completed her online-teaching training and certification.
“I have to post by 11:59 every Sunday night. 11:30, every Sunday night, I’m still on the computer. I’m still trying to figure things out,” Dr. Biden told Vogue via Zoom on Tuesday, against the backdrop of her lush garden in Wilmington, Delaware. “I have a lot more sympathy for [my students], when I get back into the classroom, knowing just how tough it is.”
This September would have marked Dr. Biden’s 36th year in the classroom. Instead, she is stepping into the role of America’s Teacher, embarking on a listening tour with parents, teachers, and students across the country about the educational crisis of the pandemic. She’s met teachers who Zoom from their empty classrooms to provide kids with a semblance of normalcy, and others who drive to multiple families’ homes, walking them through remote-learning technology from the safe distance of their cars. “Parents don’t need to feel this uncertainty or this anxiety.”
Next semester, whether she’s First Lady or not, Dr. Biden plans to teach a full course load, just as she did as Second Lady, against the advice of at least one aide who called her decision “insane.” “I like working. Like so many of your readers, I’m a working woman,” Dr. Biden tells me. “[Teaching is] my passion. That’s what I love doing,” she added. “That has been my career and, really, a major focus in my life, so I feel like I could handle it and do everything else that First Ladies want to do.” Her initiatives are wide-reaching and well-documented: free community college, the welfare of military families (continuing the work she and First Lady Michelle Obama started together), the expansion of cancer research (after losing the Bidens’ son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015), and, of course, education.
Dr. Biden’s August DNC speech from an empty classroom proved an emotional watershed moment, giving voice to the pain and anxiety so many teachers and families are dealing with during this strange and uncertain back-to-school season, which the Biden campaign accuses the president of badly botching. The Trump administration has defied public health experts, demanding that all children return in-person, regardless of the infection rates in their states. “We’re in Donald Trump’s America and … it’s just chaotic. ‘Do I go back? Do I not go back? How do I go back?'” Dr. Biden said. “It is so tough to figure out the best path for your child, and there’s nothing more important to us than our children. We need to have a strategy and a plan, which my husband already has in place.”
While President Trump threatened to deny federal funding for school districts that didn’t obey his order to return to in-person learning, the Biden-Harris reopening plan promises emergency funding to improve ventilation systems and revamp classrooms for social distancing. “I want parents, I want kids, I want educators to have a sense of hope that things are going to get better,” Dr. Biden said. “They will have guidance of what to do under a Biden administration—because we understand.”
It feels like kismet to have a lifelong educator as the would-be First Lady during this unsettling back-to-school season. Dr. Biden provides a glimmer of what it would feel like to have a capable, compassionate First Lady again. “Every First Lady can choose to be in the role the way she wishes,” Dr. Biden says to me. Some do a lot, I say, while others, ahem, do less. Dr. Biden intends to be one of the former. “Well, I hope so,” she laughs. “I mean, that’s my plan.”