Jill Biden’s back-to-school supermom chat in Green Bay

    Jill Biden holds a virtual back-to-school roundtable in Green Bay (screenshot)
    Jill Biden holds a virtual back-to-school roundtable in Green Bay (screenshot)

    As students across Wisconsin began the school year online, Jill Biden held a town hall meeting with two Green Bay mothers and Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski to discuss the challenge of meeting children’s educational needs during the pandemic.

    During the virtual campaign stop for her husband, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Jill Biden talked about her 36-year career as a teacher, the Biden campaign’s plans to address COVID-19, and how the Trump administration’s lack of a coherent response to the spread of coronavirus has prolonged it and made things worse.

    State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski (screenshot)
    State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski (screenshot)

    Godlewski, who hosted the event from her kitchen with her baby’s bouncy seat in the background, emphasized the challenges facing working parents who can’t send their children to school or child care because of COVID-19.

    She also pointed out that COVID-19 cases are going up in Wisconsin, with almost 1,500 new cases reported in a single day on Sept. 4.

    “My question is, where’s the leadership from the White House with this?” said Godlewski. “I mean it’s six months later and we still do not have a united plan for the United States. We’re competing with Minnesota and Iowa and Michigan for supplies. And then when it comes to our schools, the only option that the White House has given is to take away funding.”

    (In July, Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos declared that schools must reopen across the country or face the loss of federal funding. At the same time, Trump derided the Centers for Disease Control’s health guidelines for reopening schools as too onerous.)

    Going back to school has turned into a major political topic in this election year.

    On Monday, during a Labor Day speech in La Crosse, one of Vice President Mike Pence’s biggest applause lines came when he insisted that schools across America would be reopened for in-person classes this fall. On the same day he spoke, the  University of Wisconsin-Madison issued stringent new guidelines restricting student movement after a spike in COVID-19 cases.

    Wisconsin’s Trump campaign spokeswoman Anna Kelly put out a statement in response to Jill Biden’s visit on Tuesday declaring, “Joe Biden has put teachers unions and powerful special interests first, not students and parents. Biden bowed down to labor lobbyists as he fought to keep our schools closed.” 

    But Jill Biden’s event focused on parents — or “supermoms,” as Godlewski put it — rather than teachers unions.

    Acknowledging the difficulty of supervising at-home learning while juggling jobs, Biden said, “I know that there are lots of educators and parents who are losing sleep with worry and anxiety right now.”

    She praised the creativity and resilience of families, teachers, and communities and suggested that her husband would give the nation the leadership it deserves.

    “It’s the same way you heal a nation with love and understanding, with small acts of kindness, with bravery, with unwavering faith.” she said.

    Amanda Chu (screenshot)
    Amanda Chu (screenshot)

    Amanda Chu, a local technical college instructor, full-time graduate student and a member of the Brown County Board, talked about the challenge of working from home with her three young children. 

    Erin Berres described having to leave her job at a bank to spend more time at home with her autistic son, after his school went to a part-time in-person schedule and he needed someone at home with him when his instruction was online. 

    Biden peppered both women with questions about their children’s activities and their support networks.

    Both Chu and Berres have friends who have chosen to put their kids in private school, they said, and both women worried about the future of public schools, particularly under Wisconsin’s school choice program, which allows parents to take the taxpayer money  from their children’s public school and use it to pay private school tuition, Chu explained to Biden. 

    Chu noted that while Green Bay public schools have gone to 100% virtual instruction, some private schools are holding in-person classes, which appeals to parents who must work. 

    “The private schools offer great education, too,” she said. ‘ It’s just that the students — that’s money that’s going, that’s leaving the public school system and they’re losing. They’re losing the resources that they need.”

    Jill Biden's virtual back-to-school roundtable (screen shot)
    Jill Biden’s virtual back-to-school roundtable (screen shot)

    After listening to the women’s stories and asking them detailed questions about how their families are handling the stress, Biden said, “I just feel like, you know, everything is just so chaotic, and we need a leader — I mean we’ve got to have leadership to give us direction.”

    A Biden presidency would apply a coordinated national strategy involving doctors, scientists, the CDC and local governments, she said. “So there’s a lot of challenges there, but I feel that, you know, we can be helpful because if Joseph elected at least there will be a plan in place,”

    Godlewski wrapped things up underscoring the importance of having that plan. “I think one thing is really clear, that at the end of the day, we are in this together,” Godlweski said. “And it’s parents working with teachers who are working with administrators and staff to make sure our kids get the best education possible and to do that safely, because we know it’s not easy. But if we do this together we’ll get through it. And I think the other big theme that we’ve really heard today is we will be able to do it with a plan.”

    Ruth Conniff
    Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.