WASHINGTON – Melania Trump is having a moment in the midst of a pandemic.
After catching some criticism for not mentioning the coronavirus in a March speech to a parent-teacher group, the first lady has increased her engagement on the issue, mostly through social media since she is staying home like most Americans.
This week, she posted a photo of herself wearing a white face mask — something her husband, President Donald Trump, has said he will not do. It was her way of reinforcing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that everyone cover their nose and mouth in public.
“It is another recommended guideline to keep us safe,” she said in a video released Thursday.
Like everyone else, the first lady is retooling her spring plans because of the virus threat.
Before the pandemic shut down activity in the U.S., she was preparing for the annual Easter Egg Roll, once set for Monday. She also was planning an April state dinner for Spain’s king and queen, now postponed.
Her debut as a fundraiser for her husband’s reelection campaign was nixed, as was her annual spring break week with son Barron at the family’s Mar-a-Lago private club in Palm Beach, Florida.
Instead, she's been burning up the long-distance phone lines checking in with her counterparts in U.S.-allied countries that also are struggling to control the virus, including Spain, Canada, France, Italy and Japan. Canada's Sophie Grégroire recently recovered from the disease.
The first lady is also using her social media accounts to provide a steady stream of guidance and tips for coping under stay-at-home orders, including reposting CDC guidance about frequent hand-washing, keeping a social distance from others and other suggestions for avoiding infection.
She has thanked medical professionals, urged blood donation, suggested email and FaceTime as alternatives for keeping in touch with friends and family, and shared resources from Scholastic for the millions of K-12 students now learning online at home because their schools are closed.
“I encourage parents to let children know this will not last forever,” the first lady said in one video message.
She also has shared links to sites where astronauts on the International Space Station read story books to children, pointed to where Washington's cherry blossoms could be seen on a video feed and where people can amuse themselves on virtual tours of the 132-room White House.
Like students around the country, 14-year-old Barron, an eighth-grader, is at home keeping up with school online but missing playing his favorite sport, soccer.
“He's happy, but he's not as happy as you could be. He'd like to be playing sports,” the president said.
Last month, Melania Trump generated an online backlash after she posted photos of herself in a hard hat overseeing construction of a tennis pavilion on the south grounds of the White House. Critics deemed the pics insensitive during the global scare over the new coronavirus.
She pushed back by tweeting at the naysayers to “contribute something good & productive in their own communities.” She signed off with the hashtag for “Be Best,” her program to teach online civility to children.
If Trump is a wartime president, Melania Trump is now a wartime first lady, and that means she has to figure out how to contribute to the effort, said Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
Mrs. Bush became a champion for women's rights in Afghanistan after the U.S. went to war there. Her appearance before the Senate education committee on Sept. 11, 2001 was scuttled after the attack on the World Trade Center. Eleanor Roosevelt visited war zones during World War II.
“These are things that are thrust upon you,” McBride said in an interview. “You're not planning for how you're going to be the cheerleader for the recovery from a pandemic.”
McBride would like to see Mrs. Trump do something for children, like an online story time, since many are home and cut off from school, friends and group sports.
“She's great at connecting with kids and they could really use her presence right now,” McBride said.
Myra Gutin, a first lady scholar at Rider University, wondered whether Melania Trump would visit hospitals in places considered “hot spots” once the situation improves and travel restrictions are lifted. The first lady visits hospitals in the U.S. and abroad for her youth initiative.
Gutin said Melania Trump is doing what she can under the circumstances.
“Everyone was waiting to see how things shook out, how the situation evolved,” Gutin said.
This version of the story corrects that Laura Bush did not appear before a Senate committee on Sept. 11, 2001 after the World Trade Center attack.
Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap