Politics

First lady Jill Biden lands in Utah for visit focused on education, fundraising

First lady Jill Biden cheers educator wellness efforts in Utah visit

By: Alixel Cabrera, Utah News Dispatch
January 16, 2024

A group of Hunter High School students and educators welcomed first lady Jill Biden in a visit to the school, part of her whirlwind trip to Utah on Tuesday.

The majority of Hunter High students were dismissed in the afternoon, but some, including choir group The Madrigals and student council members, stayed to perform or to shake the first lady’s hand, sporting school T-shirts and jackets.

At the high school, Jill Biden, who is also a teacher, highlighted educator wellness in one of Utah’s most diverse areas, in front of 140 Hunter High employees in the school’s commons. Posters with teacher appreciation messages decorated the walls.

In a quick visit to the Beehive State, Biden visited Hunter High School in West Valley City with Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, and Abby Cox, Utah’s first lady. She was also scheduled to attend fundraising events for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign in Park City.

First lady Jill Biden greets Utah’s first lady, Abby Cox, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (McKenzie Romero/Utah News Dispatch)

“Today first lady Cox and I are here to tell you that you are not alone,” Biden said, “that we understand, that we are working to honor this profession to give you the support that you deserve.”

Sometimes it feels like the weight to educate people across the country “is too heavy to carry,” Biden said, especially after the pandemic as students have needed support for more issues in addition to academic performance.

She praised the president’s initiatives to address mental health and academic needs of students, including passing a bipartisan gun safety law and a student loans forgiveness program.

“But he can’t do this alone. And here in Utah, he doesn’t have to, thanks to the work of your governor and your first lady,” Jill Biden said, adding that Utah has taken “a big step” to ensure that teachers are properly compensated.

Jill Biden also highlighted the work of Utah’s first lady, Abby Cox, also an educator, to address exhaustion and burnout among teachers and school staff.

Educator wellness is one of Cox’s initiatives. As some educators in Hunter work with children in the foster care system and those with intellectual disabilities, the state is working with these communities to ensure their success.

“Dr. Biden and I have this passion for educators in common. She has been an advocate for teachers for as long as she’s been a teacher, and it’s been a long time,” Cox said. “So I love this opportunity that she and I have to come together in a shared purpose and a shared goal of uplifting our educators making sure that you have the tools and resources that you need to be successful.”

The plane carrying first lady Jill Biden arrives in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (McKenzie Romero/Utah News Dispatch)

Biden touched down on a cold Salt Lake City day and hurried to her motorcade Tuesday afternoon. She arrived an hour later than scheduled, a delay she later attributed to an inch of snow in Washington D.C., a fact she could laugh at in Utah.

Biden was greeted by first lady Abby Cox and her 17-year-old daughter, Emma Kate. Temperatures at the private hangar off Salt Lake City International Airport hovered around freezing at Biden’s arrival, attended by local media.

Following her visit to Hunter High School, the first lady was scheduled to attend fundraising events in Park City.

“It’s super special that we were chosen,” Jordan Martinsen, an English teacher at Hunter High, said during the school event. “(The fact) that she’s a teacher herself makes it a more genuine message because she’s kind of been there and done that.”

While she was receptive to the message, she’s still waiting for more action from the state to address educators’ wellness, she said.

“I love this school, and I love this district. So I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “They talked about a lot of really nice, lovely things. Sometimes that’s not the day-to-day reality, but I did like the message and I think it’s nice to be reminded that there’s people on your side.”

Students take a picture as first lady Jill Biden speaks during a visit to Hunter High School in West Valley City, Utah, on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Alixel Cabrera, Utah News Dispatch)

Parallel to West Valley City, which according to the 2020 census is a minority-majority community, Hunter High’s school body is predominantly composed of students of color, which make up 66% of its population – 50% of them are Hispanic – according to 2022 data.

About 48% of students were also reported to be economically disadvantaged, according to the Granite School District.

“Compensation is a part of meeting teachers’ needs, but it’s also about instructional support,” Granite School District superintendent Rich K. Nye said on Tuesday. “What does it look like to have, say, a literacy paraprofessional in the room, or an interventionist in the room, or a school psychologist, or licensed clinical social worker to be able to meet the needs of the students?”

The district has grown its mental health resources available for teachers through insurance plans or its own wellness clinics, Nye said.

The district has also prioritized strategies to address teachers’ retention concerns, prioritizing the recruitment of educational support professionals, and taking into account their interests and that they represent the communities’ demographics.

Biden, according to her bio, has championed different educational initiatives to open up more opportunities to all students, such as universal preschool and more affordable higher education chances, including free community college.

In her last visit to Utah in 2021, Biden walked through Glendale Middle School, located on Salt Lake City’s west side and also known for its rich ethnic diversity, where she met with students and spoke about her commitment to raise teachers’ compensations and recruit more staff of color.

The first lady was set to depart Utah Tuesday night for San Francisco, where she’s scheduled for additional fundraising events for the Biden Victory Fund and other community meetings. Jill Biden will visit San Francisco and Healdsburg in California, in addition to Columbus, Ohio.

McKenzie Romero contributed to this report.

Utah News Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Utah News Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor McKenzie Romero for questions: info@utahnewsdispatch.com. Follow Utah News Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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