SALT LAKE CITY — First lady Jill Biden seemed right at home Wednesday interacting with students and praising teachers at a middle school on the west side of Salt Lake City before heading to a pop-up COVID-19 clinic to encourage Utahns, especially the Hispanic community, to get vaccinated.
A longtime educator, Biden listened to students and teachers in classrooms at Glendale Middle School who have had a rough year trying to manage online and in-person learning because of the ongoing pandemic.
"What an amazing school this is and the students," the first lady said.
Biden said being an educator this year has been hard.
"There's no denying that, and there have been losses we'll never get back. Lost time with each other, lost learning and the loss of so many who we love," she told Glendale teachers who sat 6 feet apart and wore masks in the school cafeteria.
The best gift we can give to show appreciation to teachers "does not come from a store. It's giving you what you need to be your best. It's investing in you, the teachers, and your president knows that," she said, reminding everyone that he's married to a teacher.
President Joe Biden will make sure to create more mentoring programs and pathways to earn additional credentials "so that you can grow your career," will work to recruit more teachers of color and pay teachers competitive salaries, Jill Biden said, drawing applause from the gathering.
"That's the thanks that we owe you and the promise that we make to you during this Teacher Appreciation Week," she said.
Biden spent about 2½ hours in Salt Lake City on Cinco de Mayo before flying to Las Vegas as part of a two-day trip that will end Thursday in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In addition to the school, she made a brief stop at a pop-up vaccination clinic at Jordan Park.
Accompanied by Utah first lady Abby Cox and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, Biden dropped in on Glendale's ukulele club where a dozen students played along to a YouTube video of a song called "House of Gold." Biden tapped her foot and bobbed her head as she listened.
"Wow!" she said at the end.
Teacher Dane Hess described how the club is mostly beginners and how they initially met outside because of the pandemic.
"They must have a good teacher," she said.
After the song, student Eli Kaufusi, dressed in traditional Tongan clothing, put a colorful lei around the first lady's neck.
Biden then visited another class called Techniques for Tough Times. Eighth graders shared posters showing what they find special about themselves as part of an "I am ..." assignment.
Jax Stenholm, who wants to be an architect, was among the students who read his poster to the first lady, saying, "I am Jax. I am a supportive friend. I want you to know you can do anything you set your mind to."
Biden then did the same assignment as the students, writing on the whiteboard, "I am Jill. I am a mother, a nana, a teacher ... who believes all students can soar!"
One student asked the first lady to describe her life in three words. Biden replied "exciting, healing, inspiring." She said some days are stressful, while others are beautiful. She said she was given a great platform as first lady to work for education, community colleges and military families.
"I don't want to waste a moment of my time as first lady," Biden said. "You can do so much."
Glendale Middle School Principal Jill Baillie said Biden "couldn't have come at a more important time."
"It was a very hard year for educators, partially because they didn't see their kids. A lot of times, cameras were off. We lost a lot of our kids, and for her to talk to my teachers was really special because we've been through so much,"
She said the pandemic hit when administrators were expecting "incredible" test scores and attendance data, and the school lost 30% of its students.
"That was really hard on us, and we had to think about how to reengage our kids," she said.
Baillie praised the students who she said "stole the show" during the meeting with Biden.
"Of course, they should have. It was their day, they did so well, and they really enjoyed it," she said.
Mayors, members of Congress on hand to greet Biden
In addition to the Coxes and Stewart, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, both Democrats, and Utah GOP Reps. Blake Moore and Burgess Owens met Biden at the air terminal east of the Salt Lake airport. She chatted briefly with each of them before her motorcade headed to the school.
Though he wasn't at the airport, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was among the first to welcome Biden to the state in a short letter he posted on Twitter early Wednesday, saying "it's an honor to have you."
"I'm thrilled for you to see firsthand the strides Utah is making in getting our state back on track after the pandemic — to roll out vaccines, get our kids back in school, and our workers back on the job," Lee wrote.
President Jean B. Bingham, general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, met the first lady during her visit to the middle school.
"It's a challenge, wherever we are, to make sure that every child gets the education that they need. Utah is one of the places that are really striving to make sure that that happens. I think this just gives it a little bit of a boost to emphasize how important education for children, youth and adults is in Utah," President Bingham told the Deseret News.
She said she admires Biden for her focus on education "throughout her life, despite all the other things that have happened in her life. She could've said 'I'm done,' but she has continued to champion education, and so I'm impressed with her."
"We believe that the glory of God is intelligence, and the more we learn, the better off we are. And that's one of the things that I really appreciate about people who spend their time, give their time, educating others and helping them to become all that they can be," President Bingham said.
"Education should not be a political issue. It is a personal issue, it is a humanitarian response to helping everyone to develop to their full potential," she said.
Utah Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, expressed optimism that Biden came to Utah as a "healer."
"And she's an educator, and she's brought a message of civility and working together, and we're all on the same page," Mayne said, adding that she believes Biden is working to fight despair and divisions in the country.
The Republican National Committee criticized Biden's visit to Utah, saying neither President Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris have "even bothered" to tour the U.S. border with Mexico.
"Jill Biden has no business heading west to Utah without stopping to visit the crisis the Biden administration has created at the southern border," said RNC spokesperson Keith Schipper.
Glendale neighborhood out early to greet first lady
More than an hour before the first lady arrived at Glendale Middle School, a few dozen neighbors and students gathered along the streets ready to greet her, some waving American flags. One person held up a "Trump 2024" flag, but there were no protesters at any of the sites.
Alana Reid, a lifelong resident of the Glendale neighborhood, described Biden's visit as "awesome, awesome."
"I just can't believe it. It means a lot to me. It means that the community is going to be a lot better, and it's really exciting for something to happen. Because we're not the ghetto, we're a good neighborhood here, a really good neighborhood. We all connect with each other, we take care of each other," Reid said.
She said she hopes Biden's visit might bring attention to how students in the neighborhood are doing and "maybe help out with some things that they really need."
"Because these kids have been more or less neglected with COVID and everything. And bringing this into view, the kids are just loving it. And it's going to mean a lot to them, too, as they move on. I mean this is really history, making history in this area," Reid said.
Nathaly Martinez, Isaac Cruz and Yosi Carrasco, students at the middle school, all said they were excited to see the first lady and show that their school isn't "the ghetto."
"That means we're important," Isaac, who is an eighth grader, said.
Yosi, also in eighth grade, said the visit means that "at least someone cares about our school."
During the pandemic, Yosi noted that "none of us really attended school, because we had to babysit or do something for our family."
She and her friends said they hope the visit might lead to more resources for those who attend the school.
Jim Espland, who's lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, said it's the biggest thing that's happened there since the filming of the classic family movie "Sandlot."
"I just hope more unity between the different politicians and parties, that they'll try to get along better," Espland said.
Encouraging vaccinations, especially among minority populations
After the school visit, Biden was driven to Jordan Park where Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and Comunidades Unidas hosted a pop-up vaccination clinic for Latino residents.
Minority communities across the country and in Utah are lagging behind in getting the vaccine.
In Utah, 20.3% of the state's Hispanic or Latino and 14.1% of the Black populations are fully vaccinated, according to the Utah Department of Health. Just under 50% of white Utahns are fully vaccinated.
Diane Trejo said she'd been reluctant to get vaccinated against COVID-19, fearing the shot would be painful and possibly cause side effects.
But the 34-year-old restaurant worker changed her mind when a friend asked if she'd be willing to be vaccinated during the first lady's visit to a pop-up clinic set up in Jordan Park, not far from her Glendale home.
Having Biden by her side made all the difference, Trejo said.
"I was nervous and excited at once. I just wanted to jump up and hug her or something, but I couldn't," she said. The first lady didn't offer any words of encouragement, but did ask if she was OK after the shot.
"I said, 'Yeah, it was OK.' I was more excited to see her," Trejo said. "I didn't even feel anything. I was looking at her and then I was, 'OK, I'm done.'"
Biden's brief tour of the site, which was set up to administer around 200 more shots after her departure, started with an enthusiastic welcome in English and Spanish from Comunidades Unidas, a community nonprofit that helped organize the clinic focused on vaccinating Latinos.
Fernando Bello, a community health worker with Comunidades Unidas, told the first lady that many in the community without legal status have had to keep working during the pandemic, often in jobs that exposed them to COVID-19. Bello said he urged her to help get immigration reform through Congress, a message he said was spontaneous.
"I was just thinking about if I had a chance to talk to her what I would say," he said. "It just came from my heart."
Mayra Cedano, Comunidades Unidas executive director, teared up later describing how she hoped to remind the administration that immigrants struggling to live legally in the United States have already waited a long time for help from Washington, D.C.
"This is the story of my community. My story," said Cedano, who described herself as undocumented for many years before obtaining citizenship.
She said she asked Biden, "Please don't forget about us. Then I said, 'Please, we need comprehensive immigration reform.'" At that point, the first lady turned and waved at the organization's youth group members dressed in bright red T-shirts.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who, along with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and others, also spoke with Biden briefly at the socially distanced event largely out of earshot of the media, said she "had a lot of thanks" for the first lady.
Wilson said she was grateful the trip focused on one of the county's "most diverse ZIP codes," where public health officials are facing hesitancy about getting vaccinated against COVID-19, particularly in minority communities.
"I cannot imagine a better outreach event today with our daily effort to get needles in arms," the county mayor said. "That needs messaging right now. Although it was a brief visit, she sent a message as this administration has. This is about people. This about their health."
Loved the chance to show @FLOTUS one of our City's westside treasures, Jordan Park, and introduce her to some of #SLC's amazing community members. I take such pride in showing off this beautiful city. It was an honor to host Dr. Biden. #utpolpic.twitter.com/exFY95nI1w— Mayor Erin Mendenhall (@slcmayor) May 5, 2021
Young volunteers in bright red Comunidades Unidas T-shirts eagerly waited for the first lady to arrive and see their banner welcoming her in Spanish and English. At one point, the first lady waved at the group of young greeters, and as she left, they applauded and cheered.
"It's such an exciting feeling today," said Tyler Harvey, the Salt Lake County Health Department's manager for outreach clinics.
"We all have to do this together," Biden said during a briefing by Mayors Wilson and Mendenhall, state Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, local health department officials and a leader of Comunidades Unidas.
"It feels like we have hope again," Biden said, talking about getting back to a "new normal."