Fall is upon us, and with the change of seasons, Maine students begin a new school year. Last year was a challenging and confusing time; it was full of challenges and disruptions for parents, students and teachers alike.

In response, the Legislature took action to set our schools and our students up for success today and in the future. From universal free school meals and more locally grown foods in school meals, to investments in public education at all levels, I am excited for the new school year.

Anne Carney

First, I want to highlight some of the COVID-19 safety measures that our schools will be adhering to. We know our students benefit from in-person learning, and we want all our students to return safely to school – and remain safely in school. We know how to meet this goal, which is why the CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status. Additionally, the CDC recommends social distancing of at least three feet inside the schools and COVID-19 testing for those who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

I know that this has been a long, hard time, but following these guidelines will help us return to normal at last.

Now, let’s return to the work the Legislature did this year. The Legislature took major steps to address student hunger. Even before the pandemic, almost 80,000 students were eligible for free meals in Maine schools. And now, more students are projected to be eligible for free school meals. That’s why it became clear that one of the best solutions to the challenge of student hunger was providing free school meals to all students — an initiative that I supported in the bipartisan, biennial budget.

The benefits are clear: Universal free school meals increase household food security because these meals are the only reliable sources of nutrition many children have access to. To help implement this program, Maine school districts are still asking families to fill out the paperwork for free meals.

In addition to universal free school meals, I supported LD 636, a bill to help schools purchase more food from local farms and producers. The bill broadened the eligibility criteria for partners and stakeholders to participate in the Local Foods Fund, which is a program that helps schools purchase produce and other minimally processed foods from local farmers and food producers.

Farmers and food producers will now also be able to supply our schools with value-added dairy and protein, such as eggs, fish, meat, and yogurt – as well as produce. These new partnerships between our local farms and schools in our community support farmers and students as we work toward the common goal of reducing child and student hunger.

Lastly, the Legislature directed some of the federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act toward investments in education – at all levels – across Maine.

To start, we transferred $45 million to the School Revolving Renovation Fund, which helps schools make health and safety improvements and upgrades to their learning centers and facilities. We allocated $35 million to the Maine Community College System and another $35 million to the University of Maine System to help keep tuition costs stable. We also directed $10 million to the Department of Education to build and improve Maine’s early childhood education infrastructure, because the pandemic revealed just how critical and important childcare and education are for the whole family.

Although the pandemic was hard, the Legislature worked to make these once-in-a-lifetime investments for a Maine education that prepares everyone for a better future. This way, Maine can continue to be a great state to get an education, find a job, buy a house, raise a family and retire.

It’s an honor to represent our community in Augusta. If you have any concerns or questions, or you need some assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected] or 207-287-1515. As always, I work for you.

Anne Carney represents Maine Senate District 29, which consists of Cape Elizabeth, South Portland and part of Scarborough.

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