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March 21, 2020 Message from Acting Superintendent Mary Paine
Mary Paine
Saturday, March 21, 2020

March 21, 2020 Message from Acting Superintendent 

Good Afternoon RSU 2,

As I thought about what I wanted to say to you today, I felt the same strange distance that I always feel when I call your homes announcing a snow day or send out updates. I considered making a video so you could put a face to my voice and words, but the technology was slowing me down. For now, I write.

There is so much I want to talk with you about-- too much for one letter, so I will take one topic at a time. Today it is providing food support to families during an emergency school closure. I would like to offer some background and information and then update you on plans for meal service in RSU 2. 

I know very few of you personally, but I think I can imagine the families who are experiencing this moment in time. Some families are doing OK right now. They were able to stock up on food and supplies before extreme social distancing began. I imagine these families are learning new ways of being together, often with the help of technology. Other families, I know, are worried about where their next meal will come from. These families could not afford to stock up on food or household supplies for the pandemic. In the last few weeks, they have watched store shelves be emptied and people retreat into their homes.

In some ways it’s easy for me to imagine the families in the second category. When I was growing up, my family relied on what was called “government surplus food.” I can still remember the large blocks of cheese and boxes of powdered milk we would pick up from the town hall each month. What I have a harder time imaging is living under those circumstances in fear of a rapidly spreading contagion--of my mom being told that the only way to get the food we needed was to travel to a community site every few days and pick up individually prepared meals—all while everyone else was able to remain safely in their homes. Under rules in place at the time of this writing, that is approximately the situation in RSU 2.

For this reason, last week, I sent out a message saying that RSU 2 would not be providing meal service to the community during the COVID-19 school closure. I was personally and painfully aware of the impact that decision would have on families. I can’t tell you how many times I wrote and rewrote that announcement. Ultimately, I stopped trying to craft an assuring message when I had no assurances to give. I broke down in tears after I clicked the Send button.

The RSU 2 Food Services Director and I had tried for days to come up with a plan that would meet the needs of our communities during a pandemic. We were simultaneously trying to solve the problems of hunger and infectious disease. And we were trying to do this with a federally funded Summer Food Service Program.The rules of the "summer meals" program work fairly well for providing food support in the summer when the eligible meal sites are accessible and gatherings are not being discouraged. Many summer sites even become festive social hangouts. And that is the problem. The Summer Food Service Program rules are completely inappropriate when a pandemic calls for a period of social distancing and avoidance of gatherings.

I was looking for a better way. With the help of community partners and school administrators, I put into place a short-term, locally funded plan that I hoped would reduce the restrictions and limit the amount of communal contact required. I knew that even if I could implement it, the plan was not something we could keep up because we would run out of resources. In order to sustain a meal program through a long school closure, we must rely on USDA food and reimbursement. I hope every day to hear news of more flexibility in providing food to our vulnerable families during this crisis, and I know our state and federal agencies and representatives are working hard to find answers for us.

I am deeply grateful to Senator Shenna Bellows and the entire RSU 2 legislative delegation for reaching out to me this week. They sought to understand the problem, and they are appealing to state and federal authorities for new regulations more suited to a pandemic. What I have been asking for is the ability to deliver food to families who need it instead of requiring them to come to our few eligible sites along with the ability to deliver food in larger quantities, eliminating the frequent preparation and transfer of food. This seemingly simple idea—boxes of groceries for a week rather than individual meals for couple of days—is more complex to work out than it sounds, but I believe we can and must. UPDATE March 22, 2020: Some have asked why RSU 2 cannot deliver food by bus to children as other districts do. The reason is that in our district few of our bus routes meet the current eligibility criteria, which is the same criteria used to approve meal sites. I have been informed that our state and federal agencies are working to give districts such as ours more flexibility.

Here is the update on RSU 2 Meal Sites: As we wait for change, an outpouring of local organizations and volunteers have mobilized to create meal sites in RSU 2 under the current “summer meal” rules. I understand the reason for that outpouring, and I am both grateful for the efforts and deeply concerned, for the reasons I have already explained. Despite my concerns, I decided yesterday that if the centralized, community meal sites are going to happen anyway, RSU 2 will step in to run the program, and we are making plans to do that now. In the meantime, I urge those who are currently managing and volunteering at meal sites to do so with the highest level of social distancing and sanitation possible. These measures will help provide some protections and will encourage families to come to the sites for the food they need.

May change come quickly, but for the time being, we will do the best we can to provide food and support to our families. We will keep you apprised on the RSU 2 meal sites once we work out the details.

I may take a bit of a break from technology this weekend, but I will be checking my email and phone messages frequently. Do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to talk.

Please look for a letter in the near future on the topic of teaching and learning during the emergency school closure.

May you have serenity in the coming days.