‘You keep us going,’ Jill Biden tells NEPA educators during town hall on COVID-19 and safely reopening schools

Students in the Crestwood School District, in Luzerne County, speak with Jill Biden during an online town hall on Thursday, 9/10/20 (screen capture)

Janice Ciavarella is in her 12th year of teaching language arts in the Crestwood public schools in Luzerne County. An area native, she went away to college, came back, and now teaches students in the same elementary school she attended in her youth.

This week, though, Ciavarella isn’t in the classroom. Like many Pennsylvania educators, she’s teaching her lessons virtually. The Crestwood schools started the year online on Tuesday. The district, which is home to more than 3,000 students, is supposed to make a call in October on whether to switch to a fully in-person or hybrid model.

For Ciavarella, that day can’t come soon enough.

“The transition back to school has been challenging to say the least,” Ciavarella said Thursday. “The technology has been the most overwhelming and frustrating [thing]. We went through intensive summer training. We had to learn new platforms. For families, having parents working from home, sharing devices, or no devices at all. And the internet issues. I know some families are struggling. We are trying to be as helpful as we can. I just want to be back in the classroom. I want to see my kids … hopefully they want to see me too.”

Miles away, Jill Biden nodded in understanding.

The wife of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is an also an educator. And on Thursday, she met in virtual session with students, administrators and teachers in the suburban Wilkes-Barre district to ask them how they’re coping with life in the classroom during COVID-19.

Some, such as high school senior Helena Jardine, told Biden, a community college professor, that they’ve done their best to cope.

“When we first went online, it was around April, I wasn’t expecting it. That was a big surprise. I didn’t get to play my spring sport, which is lacrosse,” she told Biden. “My mom was very insistent in my brother and sister and I staying home. I knew I had to make the best of it.”

Biden, offering some encourage to Jardine and two other students who participated in the event, said, “I know this has been tough on you. But you didn’t let it get you down. I know it’s not always easy.”

Shannon Żurawski, a special education teacher, told Biden that her return to class has been difficult — for her, and her students.

“It’s rough. Our students need that human connection. Some of our kids have been home for six months and haven’t gone anywhere. It’s been really tough not to see them,” she said. “All my students have an [individual education plan] … We’re trying to meet all their needs as best we can.”

Again the nod, again the encouragement.

“You keep us going,” Biden told the educators. “It makes me proud to be an educator to see all of the staff in all of the schools step up and chip in where needed.”

The debate over how, and whether, America’s public schools should reopen has a linchpin issue in state capitols, the halls of Congress, and in the battle for the White House.

In August, the Trump administration tried to reboot an unsuccessful pressure campaign to get schools to fully reopen for in-person instruction, arguing that it’s the most beneficial for students who have been stranded at home for months.

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“We cannot indefinitely stop 50 million American children from going to school and harming their mental, physical, emotional, and academic development and inflicting long-term, lasting damage,” Trump said during an Aug. 25 news conference, according to ChalkBeat.

Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have variously opted for an online launch or a hybrid schedule where students are in the classroom for part of the week, where social distancing and other safety protocols are followed, and then at home for the rest of the week.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly have clashed on the best reopening strategies for schools and businesses. This week, Wolf said he would veto legislation approved by both the state House and Senate, that would give school districts, not the administration, the final say over whether students can play sports, and whether spectators can watch them.

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In separate statements released Thursday, senior Republicans in the state House and Senate said they were planned to try to override Wolf’s veto, an action that requires a two-thirds vote of lawmakers in both chambers.

In his six years in office, Wolf has not had a veto overridden. And last week, the House fell short of the votes it needed to override Wolf’s veto of a resolution attempting to negate his pandemic emergency order, which the administration used to order the shutdown of businesses and to impose other restrictions.

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden has called the challenge of reopening America’s public schools “a national emergency.”

The Democratic presidential nominee has proposed “widespread testing and tracing of who has been in contact with people who are infected. He said he would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse states for spending on protective equipment for teachers as “emergency protective measures” that qualify for funding,” USA Today reported.

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During her conversation with the northeastern Pennsylvania educators and support staff Thursday, Mrs. Biden said the challenge facing public schools and the nation calls for strong leadership — leadership that her husband possesses.

“We just need leadership worthy of our nation, worthy of you,” she said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has “shined a bright light on the systemic inequities in our education system.”

Jill Biden’s virtual visit to northeastern Pennsylvania comes amid a blitz of candidate visits to a critical 2020 battleground state.

Joe Biden visited Harrisburg in-person on Monday for a Labor Day event with union leaders. President Donald Trump campaigned in Westmoreland County last week.

Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in Beaver County on Wednesday. And both Biden and Trump are expected to make appearances in Somerset County on Friday for Sept. 11 remembrance ceremonies at the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pa.

Northeastern Pennsylvania also has strategic significance for the Democrat’s campaign. Joe Biden grew up a short distance down Interstate 81 in suburban Scranton.

And after landing in the Democratic column for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, Luzerne County flipped to Trump in 2016, playing a key role in helping him carry the state that year. Democrats need to recapture it, and Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes, to win the White House.

Without mentioning that undeniable political reality out loud, Biden didn’t let the high stakes of the election slip by unaddressed.

“This election is way too consequential to sit on the sidelines,” she said. “You need to talk to friends and families about why this election matters to you. Help your friends and family make a plan to go and vote … Together, we can get our kids back to school.”

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press