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Among the thousands of teachers heading back to the classroom this fall will be one in Alexandria, Va., who likes her students to call her "Dr. B."
Jill Biden is the first first lady to maintain a full-time job outside the East Wing. Soon she'll have another first under her belt: the only first lady to teach a hybrid-learning community college class in the midst of a terrifying surge in a raging global pandemic.
"Can you believe it's almost time to begin the new school year?" she asked a socially distanced crowd at Waipahu High School near Honolulu in late July. "I hope you're as excited as I am for those clean whiteboards, the freshly waxed floors, and, best of all, the bright faces of our students - in person."
Video: Kids ask questions of new teacher in the White House
Starting the week of Labor Day, Biden will be spending every Tuesday and Thursday for 13 weeks on the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), according to a class schedule available to students. When she taught remotely last semester, she had a similar schedule and blocked off most of her day - 8 hours, from early morning until after 4 p.m., for two three-hour lectures per day and a lunch break in between - to concentrate on teaching. She'll even have office hours, just like last semester. But this time around, instead of talking into a computer, she'll be commuting to work from the White House by motorcade, will be teaching in a mask and will have a phalanx of Secret Service agents with her.
All 18 slots in her morning section of College Composition I, which teaches students how to write academic essays, are filled already. Her courses will be combined with English Composition Readiness II, for students who need a little extra writing help, says NOVA's dean of Liberal Arts, Jimmie McClellan. Biden's been teaching some version of these classes since she joined NOVA's faculty in 2009, when her husband became vice president. She was a trailblazer then, too: the only second lady to hold onto her professional career.
Biden has made her preference for in-person versus remote teaching clear, advocating for a return to classrooms since the start of the administration.
It's a stance that has become more controversial amid deadly surges of the delta variant. It puts Biden, who usually stays away from hot-button issues, at the center of a national war about masking in schools and vaccination requirements that has already led to parents getting into physical altercations with mask-wearing teachers in Texas and Northern California, and showdowns between city school superintendents and their state's Republican governors in Texas and Florida. And now, with the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, school districts around the country are issuing vaccine mandates for teachers and staff, in New York City, Chicago and San Antonio, as well as the entire states of New Jersey, Washington, California, Connecticut and Oregon.
Biden, who makes a point of wearing a mask in most public settings, is in many ways the face of the administration's positions on mask and vaccine requirements in schools - positions that the majority of Americans approve of, according to a new poll, but which nonetheless set off fierce opposition. She'll be returning to a NOVA campus that has been a landing site for refugees who fled Afghanistan after her husband's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the country and the chaotic collapse of its government.
As the "Teacher in Chief," as her peers have called her, she's also the one person in the White House who is heading back out to the front line of the pandemic.
"I think it's really hard to learn on Zoom, don't you?" Biden asked a fifth-grade writing class during a visit to a school in Concord, N.H., in March. "I think it's really hard, but I still get to know my students just like your teacher does."
According to CBS News, Biden asked to return to campus in January, but the college denied the request because they were limiting the number of people on-site. She's talked about missing the energy of a great discussion and her worry for the mental health of her students, particularly those who lost family members because of the coronavirus.
"Like all educators, the first lady cannot wait to get back into the classroom with her students," says her press secretary, Michael LaRosa. "She is looking forward to teaching and communicating in person rather than through the screen."
Biden has spent the last few weeks out of the public eye in Wilmington, Del., with some time in Washington, Camp David and their home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., working on her syllabus and lesson plan, as is her tradition before the start of every school year. She's also been recovering from a foot injury. When she walks up to her lectern, she will be masked, as will all of her students, per a Virginia mandate. Seating will be socially distanced, says Dawn Selak, director of communications for NOVA. Biden will have no way of knowing whether her students are vaccinated; the Virginia Community College System that governs NOVA nixed a vaccination mandate in May. But Selak says the community college has been encouraging all students to get vaccinated and providing a $250 incentive.
Biden's classes are listed as hybrid, meaning students will spend 50 percent or more of their time meeting in person, with some online learning, but "that's just in case that there is a need for it," says a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about internal planning.
The Secret Service detail assigned to follow her everywhere on campus will probably be bigger and more intense than the one she had when she started teaching at NOVA in 2009.
As second lady, she successfully barred the Secret Service from casing her classroom. "I couldn't have them sitting right there in the front row - the students would be too intimidated," she wrote in her memoir, "When the Light Enters." At her request, they ditched their dark suits and dressed like college students, carrying their protective equipment in backpacks so they could better blend in, and guarded a seating area down the hall from her classroom.
"I hoped not only that my students would not notice there were Secret Service agents nearby, but also that they wouldn't even realize I was the Second Lady," Biden wrote. "And as unlikely as it seems, many of them didn't."
Biden's classes are often listed on course schedules as being taught by "staff." Sometimes she uses her middle name and the instructor field reads, "Tracy, J."
"She had a lot more anonymity and traveled with less of an entourage," the White House official says - although there will probably be efforts to slim down the motorcade so as not to make such a scene every time she drives through Virginia.
Out of more than 50 NOVA students who wrote anonymous reviews of her on the site RateMyProfessors.com, only one alluded to her other job. "With all on her plate, she still puts in time, effort and concern for her students. I mean, who - in her position - would continue here with all that's going on in her family's very public life? But in the classroom she's simply Dr. Biden," the review read.
Most other reviews have effusive praise ("She has a big heart and passion for education," says one. "101% worth it," says another). But plenty of others gripe about Biden assigning way too much homework. "Super tough grader! Lots of writing! Not sure how any student can make it out her class!!!" says one recent review.
Biden has built her public profile around being a teacher and mentions it at nearly every event she's held as first lady. "I'm a teacher, and everything I do is evidence-based," she told people in a drive-through vaccination center in Orlando, to try to get them to take the coronavirus shot. "As a teacher, as a mom and grandma, I wanted to be able to give the best answers I could. So I asked some experts," she said at another vaccination event in Jackson, Miss.
Her first lady schedule is built around teaching, not the other way around. While she taught remotely last semester, the press corps, staff and Secret Service sometimes waited a full day on certain trips to California and Navajo Nation so she could stay on Zoom before returning to the White House.
Biden's teaching career began in 1976, a year after she met and started dating then-Sen. Joe Biden, with a job teaching English at a private Catholic high school, she writes in her memoir. She then worked at several other high schools, was a reading specialist for Black students at a newly desegregated high school, and taught history and English to teenagers in a psychiatric hospital.
She says that once she started teaching at community colleges - first at Delaware Technical Community College and then at NOVA - she never looked back. She frequently talks about her admiration for her students, who are often older than conventional college students and looking for a fresh start after being veterans, single parents or refugees.
When the Obama-Biden ticket won in 2008, Biden started getting emails from McClellan, NOVA's dean of Liberal Arts, encouraging her to teach there. "For eight years, counter to the advice of several senior advisors, I lived a double life," between her office in the White House and her cubicle filled with family photos and crayon drawings from her grandkids at NOVA, she writes in her memoir. She's taught there ever since, including through the years that Donald Trump was president.
Biden has kept a protective bubble around her teaching life. The week after President Biden's inauguration, she found out that her White House role was to be mentioned in a flier distributed on campus, according to a CBS News report on NOVA emails obtained through a public records request. "I am an English teacher at NOVA - not First Lady," she wrote in an email to fellow faculty, explaining that she didn't want her students to view her differently. "Thanks for honoring my teacher identity. Jill," she signed off.
Finding a way to teach as first lady wasn't easy. Biden's salary is $85,999 for the nine-month 2021-2022 school year, according to a faculty employment contract obtained by the College Fix. The Constitution's emoluments clause prevents the president from profiting from the U.S. government or any of its states. Although the clause doesn't apply to the first lady, the Bidens file taxes jointly, and NOVA is a state school - which creates a potential conflict of interest. The college settled on paying Biden through the NOVA Foundation, a nonprofit that raises private funds, CBS News reported.
Teaching, as Biden writes in her memoir, is "profoundly optimistic." Returning to the classroom next week, with coronavirus cases rising, as her husband issues evermore forceful edicts about masks and vaccination, may be Biden's next act of profound optimism.