Graduation Congrats and Economic Relief

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Congratulations to the Class of 2020 and all of the graduates from local schools – many students graduated from elementary school, middle school, and high school this past week. It was the last week of school for most local students, and I know it came with a mix of emotions. Students were excited for the beginning of summer and an end to remote classes and online learning, and many were sad to that their daily connections to friends and teachers were ending without the fun and closure of a “regular” school year.

Teachers and school leaders did a great job of making the end-of-year celebrations, move-up ceremonies, and graduations special. Many elementary schools orchestrated teacher car parades which passed the homes of every student in the district, so kids and teachers could say good-bye in person after three months of remote learning. My own son graduated from the Middlebury Union Middle School with a drive-thru ceremony that featured cheering teachers, tons of middle school love, and a special gift for each student.

High schools went all out, with lawn signs and custom masks for each student, while families elaborately decorated vehicles to transport graduates to socially distant, drive-thru graduation parade festivities, including the ceremony at Mount Abe High School in Bristol. Ceremonies featured a mix of pre-recorded and live speeches, and several included professional photographers and live-streaming for remote audiences, like this one from the Otter Valley Union High School. Many students also created tributes to their experiences, including this fabulous rendition of The Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads” from Middlebury Union High School students:

Outside organizations also tried to make the occasion special for graduates. For example, the McClure Foundation gifted every graduating senior in Vermont a free online course next fall at the Community College of Vermont, so students can continue their education no matter what. While I know some students missed the traditional graduation festivities, many were happy to be part of a unique and necessary event that will always mean that the Class of 2020 holds a special place in history. Congratulations everyone – you are inspiring!

Legislative Work and Economic Relief Packages
This past week also featured a significant amount of legislative work advancing Phase I COVID-19 Economic Relief Packages for various sectors of our state. In total, the VT Senate unanimously approved nearly $140 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funding (CRF), most of which had also been approved by the VT House and sent to the Governor for signature by the end of the week. These relief packages include:

  1. Municipal Governments – $16 million to local towns and cities for hazard pay, supplies & equipment, sanitation, facility alterations, overtime, first-response needs, and other COVID-19 expenses.
  2. Housing – $23 million for grants to non-profit housing organization for housing and facilities necessary to provide safe shelter and assistance for people who are, or are at risk of, homelessness during this crisis.
  3. Agriculture & Farm Relief – $30 million for grants to dairy farmers, milk processors and cheese makers, non-dairy farmers and agricultural producers, as well as slaughter facilities and farmers’ markets. All grantees must show “economic harm” since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.
  4. General Business Relief – $70 million for grants to businesses across the state with a focus on retail, hospitality, and restaurant businesses that have seen a sharp decline in revenue since March.

The Legislature will stay in session for the next two weeks to deliver additional Phase I Economic Relief assistance to various sectors in Vermont and approve a short-term state budget for the first three months – July, August, September – of fiscal year 2021. This year’s budget is particularly challenging because state funds are a combined $350 million in the red. We will also work to finish priority pieces of legislation, including a policing & criminal justice reform bill, and bills that may be time-sensitive or necessary for the operations of the state. We will recess for the month of July and early August and be back in mid-August to finish the FY21 budget, finalize pending bills, and deliver Phase 2 COVID-19 Economic Relief Assistance. The two-stage process will allow us to better assess the financial impact of this crisis, gather additional information from the federal government about federal funding and relief, and reserve or reallocate federal funding for unanticipated needs during the second half of the year.

The Legislature is working to be as comprehensive, generous, and fiscally responsible as possible with our economic relief packages, and to deliver aid in the form of grants rather than loans. As a member of the Senate Agriculture and Education Committees, I have been focused on the relief package to assist farmers, providing sufficient food security for all Vermonters, and ensuring that our childcare programs, public K-12 schools, and college & universities have the resources they need to safely re-open and remain fiscally sound. I have also been advocating for aid for elder care programs, arts & cultural organizations, broadband expansion, and low-wage workers.

I will be able to share more information about the Phase I budget and economic relief packages in early July, and will work hard to ensure that more aid goes out to as many sectors as possible later this summer. I know that many people, businesses, and organizations are struggling – my inbox is full of messages from constituents asking for help. I am working hard to respond to your pleas for assistance and collaborate with my colleagues to equitably balance all of the needs across the state. It’s an overwhelming and difficult task.

COVID-19 Guidance and Updates
Although it’s summer and many activities can be done outside, don’t forget that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. In fact, this morning Governor Scott extended the State of Emergency until at least July 15. Continue to follow health and safety protocols — wear a mask when interacting closely with others outside your household, wash hands frequently, maintain physical distancing, and follow the recommended guidance related to testing and quarantining. There are two Addison County pop-up testing clinics in Middlebury on Fridays June 19 and 26 where anyone without symptoms can be tested. The Vermont Department of Health website continues to provide daily updates related to COVID-19 activity and health guidance. The Agency of Commerce and Community Development COVID-19 Recovery Resource Center provides comprehensive information for businesses, individuals and communities. Finally, for an interesting broader analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, check out this fantastic blog by a Middlebury College student journalist who has been covering the pandemic since his study abroad program in China was canceled in January.

Finally, take a few minutes to watch this lovely rendition of Vermont’s state song, “These Green Mountains,” performed by students from the Middlebury, Mt. Abraham, and Vergennes High Schools. It’s a great reminder that we’re all in this together. Take care and stay safe.