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Keene Housing to help families afford Internet for remote education

While parents in the Monadnock Region were concerned about the effects of remote learning this spring as schools transitioned online, Luchie Marquette of Keene worried whether her sons, now 10 and 7, would be able to participate in virtual classes at all.

Marquette said she has not resumed working as a yoga instructor at Keene Yoga Center and the Keene Family YMCA since March due to safety concerns and because she does not have space at home to instruct classes remotely. Without that income, she said it has been challenging to afford basic expenses for her family, who live at Forest View Apartments on Harmony Lane — a property managed by Keene Housing, an independent public agency that provides affordable housing in the Monadnock Region.

The monthly $75 charges from their Internet provider, Spectrum, were among those expenses, Marquette said. She acknowledged the service is crucial for her sons, who are learning remotely for three days each week as they attend 4th and 1st grade, respectively, at Fuller Elementary School this fall while adding that the set-up was “extremely hard” on the whole family this spring.

But Marquette is hopeful that a new program administered by Keene Housing will offer relief.

Through its Broadband Assistance Program, Keene Housing will make $60 monthly payments to eligible clients’ Internet service providers on their behalf, according to the organization’s executive director, Joshua Meehan. The program aims to reduce the financial burdens on those families that he said have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic and can lead to educational disadvantages for their children.

“In the best of times, the digital divide has a real negative impact on low-income workers and children,” Meehan said. “I think that’s exacerbated in a time like today, where … in order to attend school, one needs a reliable, high-speed Internet connection.”

Meehan explained that families receiving assistance from Keene Housing and with children in grades K-12 are eligible to apply for the assistance, most of which will come from federal funds the organization secured last month.

Keene Housing will continue its monthly payments to the families’ Internet service provider on their behalf through the end of the school year, in June 2021, or until their children return to the classroom full time, if that happens first, he said.

The organization began mailing applications for the Broadband Assistance Program to its clients on Friday, after its board of commissioners approved the program earlier that day, according to Meehan.

“It’s very consistent with Keene Housing’s efforts to focus on our children, when we think about helping accelerate [their] becoming self-sufficient adults,” Meehan said.

He noted that the Broadband Assistance Program will not necessarily cover families’ entire Internet bill but will instead contribute $60 to those costs, given directly to the service provider, for each month they are eligible for assistance.

Meehan estimated that Keene Housing will spend nearly $140,000 through the program if remote learning continues, at least part time, for children in Keene Housing properties until June 2021.

Most of that money will likely come from $183,000 in CARES Act funding the organization received last month from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Meehan said.

HUD required those funds, part of a $472 million disbursement to public housing agencies nationwide, to be used for coronavirus-related activities. Eligible expenses include “Costs for the technological needs of program participants with school aged children being homeschooled as a result of the pandemic that are not and will not be provided through other Federal, State, or local governments,” according to a public notice the department issued in July.

However, Keene Housing can only use the CARES Act funds to provide broadband assistance for families that receive federal housing vouchers, according to Meehan. The organization would spend about $93,000 on monthly Internet payments for that group, which comprises nearly 250 eligible families, if remote learning continues until June 2021, he said.

Meehan said 83 other families that draw financial support, but who do not receive federal housing vouchers, are also eligible for the Broadband Assistance Program. He noted that Internet payments for that group would cost about $45,000 through the end of the school year and will be disbursed from Keene Housing’s general funds.

“If you are a household living with us, or assisted through one of our programs, you typically are earning around 30 percent of the area median income [and] would be described as a very low-income household,” Meehan said. “The cost of Internet access can be a real barrier for those families to make sure that their children have the same access to public education as everybody else’s kids do.”

Marquette said she has relied on government support through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to afford rent, food and other expenses as she remains out of work. Her application for unemployment insurance benefits was rejected because she had been working only part-time before the pandemic while also taking photography classes.

Keene Housing’s monthly payments through the Broadband Assistance Program would reduce her Internet bill from $75 to $15, according to Marquette. She said that difference is small but significant, with money particularly tight these days.

“I’ll take whatever help I can,” she said. “The $60 can go towards providing my family with healthy food [and] clothing, if needed, because they’re growing.”

Marquette said she listed Internet expenses as a financial burden in response to a survey conducted in April by the Keene Housing Kids Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that supports children living in residences owned or managed by Keene Housing.

Liz Chipman, KHKC’s executive director, said the survey responses indicated several other families were also concerned about being able to afford fast, reliable Internet service. She added that their testimony led KHKC to support the Broadband Assistance Program with its own complementary initiative.

“These are households, for the most part, that are struggling to make ends meet,” Chipman said. “[The Broadband Assistance Program] gives that household $60 that they can use somewhere else for other day-to-day expenses.”

KHKC will pay the cost of any overdue Internet bills and reconnection fees for eligible families that have fallen behind on those expenses, she explained, before Keene Housing begins its monthly contributions. Chipman also said the organization will establish Internet service for any household that does not already have it, although she does not believe that is common among Keene Housing families.

Chipman added that funding for those expenses will come from a grant worth up to $10,000 that she said KHKC was awarded last week through the state’s Empowering Youth Program, which also disburses CARES Act money. The organization will also use those funds to provide laptops for children in Keene Housing without access to a computer, according to Chipman.

“I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to make sure that every Keene Housing household that has a student … [is] connected to the Internet,” she said.

Families will start receiving support through the Broadband Assistance Program once Keene Housing approves their application, according to Meehan. He expressed hope that the monthly payments to Internet providers would begin “if not by October, then certainly by November.”

Marquette said KHKC has covered her full Spectrum bill for the past two months, helping ease some financial strain. Despite that relief, she submitted an application for the Broadband Assistance Program on Tuesday after receiving it a day earlier, stressing the need to ensure that her sons have ample educational opportunity this year.

“We are preparing our kids for the future,” Marquette said. “Helping them to continue to learn virtually is going to help them because not only can they participate in class, [but] they can also go on the Internet and learn something else that maybe they’re passionate about.”


Members of the Keene State College women’s basketball team held a charity car wash Saturday outside Next Level Church to benefit Henry Iselin, a young Keene boy in the hospital who has been battling a number of serious illnesses in his life. A GoFundMe page has been set up for Henry at gofundme.com/f/gfmeuyufnd7.


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DES: Spofford Lake bacteria might be variety never found before in region

SPOFFORD — The N.H. Department of Environmental Services will collect water samples from Spofford Lake Wednesday after the discovery of what may be a type of bacteria never before seen in New England, according to an official with the state agency.

The department issued an advisory Thursday after lake volunteers alerted officials of a black smudge-like substance in the water, according to Amanda McQuaid, harmful algal and cyanobacterial bloom program coordinator at the department. The advisory against wading and swimming in the lake will remain in effect until the department can determine the water is safe.

People should likewise stay out of the water at Ware’s Grove and North beaches until further notice, according to a post on the Chesterfield Parks and Recreation Department’s Facebook page.

The bacteria in question is thought to be Lyngbya wollei, a strain of cyanobacteria. While cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, is quite common in New Hampshire, this particular strain has never been found in New England, McQuaid said.

However, she said, it’s still undetermined whether Lyngbya wollei is indeed the strain of cyanobacteria in Spofford Lake.

“It is quite possible that it is not wollei, we would need further confirmation using DNA methods. However, it is characteristic of it,” McQuaid, who will be collecting the water samples Wednesday, said in an email.

“There are thousands of different types of cyanobacteria and hundreds of toxins,” she added.

Lyngbya wollei appears on the surface of lakes and is very dark in color. This strain, like other forms of cyanobacteria, can sometimes be caused by certain nutrients and warm temperatures, McQuaid said.

Lyngbya wollei is typically found in Florida, she said, but has also been seen in the Great Lakes and Canada.

Adverse reactions to the bacteria occur when too much is ingested, she explained. For humans, symptoms range from rashes, nausea and vomiting to long-term liver and central nervous system damage.

The bacteria is more worrisome for pets, McQuaid noted, as they are more likely to consume large quantities of lake water.

If the bacteria in Spofford Lake is determined to be Lyngbya wollei, McQuaid said it will be difficult to clean out.

“Unfortunately, it can be more toxic to try to get rid of them as they occur,” she said. “The cyanobacteria can release toxins which can sometimes create a more toxic situation.”

There are certain ways to prevent the bacteria, such as reducing nutrients, but McQuaid said it can often be unpredictable. She added that many short-term solutions to get rid of the bacteria can be harmful to the lakes in the long run.

“It is best to let them cycle out naturally,” she said.

The N.H. Department of Environmental Services’ advisory says people should be cautious of lake water with a surface scum, that changes colors or that has green streaks or blue-green flecks collecting near the shore.

If you notice anything resembling cyanobacteria, stay out of the water and call the state department immediately at 848-8094 or email HAB@des.nh.gov.Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.


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'Let the kids play': Monadnock school board allows all sports to compete

All student-athletes in the Monadnock Regional School District will be able to compete this year after the school board voted Tuesday night to lift restrictions on games for high-contact sports like football.

The board voted to move to phase 3 of the reopening guidance issued by the N.H. Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA), which oversees high school sports statewide. This final phase of the NHIAA guidance allows for all sports to return to practices, games, and tournaments with other schools, so long as student athletes and coaches follow certain protocols to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. These precautions include maintaining six feet of distance and wearing a face covering whenever possible.

The Monadnock board voted last month to allow fall sports and other extracurriculars to move forward. But at its Sept. 1 meeting, the group voted against moving to phase 3 of the NHIAA guidance, instead choosing to remain in phase 2, according to the minutes of that meeting. Under phase 2 of the NHIAA guidance, only minimal-contact sports like bass fishing and golf were allowed to compete, while higher-contact sports such as soccer, field hockey and football were limited to practices and training sessions.

Board member Eric Stanley of Swanzey, who made the motion to move to phase 3 of the NHIAA guidance, said the majority of school districts in the state are allowing their students to return to athletic competition this fall, and Monadnock should follow suit.

“I think the state, in general, is looking at this, and I think they’re looking at it like we should,” Stanley said during the meeting, which was held via Zoom. “Let the kids play.”

Stanley added that he believes sports are important because they are good for students’ mental health, as well as their physical well-being. But some other board members, including Nicholas Mosher of Roxbury, said allowing students to compete creates a higher risk of spreading COVID-19.

“For me, safety is the most important aspect of this,” Mosher said. “And we know from the other guidelines provided by the state for classrooms that students are not supposed to be sharing objects, passing objects between each other. And all of the other elements that go into safety in the classroom seem to be quite a bit at odds with what’s being proposed for sports.

“... I understand the popularity of sports within our district, and the desire to return to normality, but I think there’s a responsibility on behalf of the board to provide a safe environment first,” Mosher continued.

After about a half hour of discussion, the board approved the move to phase 3, under Monadnock’s weighted vote system, by a vote of 8.712 to 4.288.

Stanley and Chairman Scott Peters of Troy, Vice Chair Lisa Steadman of Troy, Brian Bohannon of Swanzey, Daniel LeClair of Swanzey, Elizabeth Tatro of Swanzey, Kristen Noonan of Fitzwilliam and Winston Wright of Fitzwilliam voted in favor of the measure. Mosher, along with Cheryl McDaniel-Thomas of Swanzey, Colleen Toomey of Swanzey, Michelle Connor of Richmond and Karen Wheeler of Gilsum, voted against it.

During the meeting Tuesday night, the board also approved a plan for the district to launch a pilot program for up to 10 teachers to live-stream their in-class lessons for students who are learning remotely.

Students in the Monadnock district returned to classes Monday under a hybrid reopening model, in which about half of them attend in-person classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half are in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Families who are uncomfortable with their children returning to any in-person classes could also opt for fully remote learning.

Mosher initially introduced a motion for all teachers in the district to begin live-streaming classes, but Superintendent Lisa Witte said the district would need to spend about $59,000 on the technology and Internet infrastructure to make that work. She also said live-streaming classes creates some legal concerns, since students’ private information could be broadcast online during a live-streamed class.

“Does live-streaming of classes have potential? Absolutely,” Witte said. “And it is legal, with some caveats. … Protecting student privacy is paramount, and there are many, many areas where that could be a pitfall with live-streaming, and that is a major concern that we have.”

So, Steadman offered an amendment to Mosher’s motion, limiting live-streaming to a maximum of 10 teachers who are willing to try the technology.

“I think that, as a pilot, it’s a great idea,” said Noonan, who seconded Steadman’s amendment. “It’s too much to throw at every teacher, to tell them they have to now start streaming their classroom, and think about all these legalities that Lisa [Witte] has mentioned.”


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Authorities continue to say little about Hinsdale double homicide

Personnel changes at N.H. State Police have prolonged the investigation into an April 2019 double homicide in Hinsdale, which the authorities continue to say little about, according to a recent motion from the N.H. Attorney General’s Office.

Neal Bolster, 29, and Aaliyah Jacobs, 19, both of Hinsdale, were found shot dead that month in Bolster’s Plain Road home. The following day, the N.H. Attorney General’s Office announced it was charging Derrick Shippee, 28, of Westmoreland, with the murders.

Shippee was found dead in Vernon, Vt., that day of what the medical examiner’s office would later rule an accidental drug overdose.

Authorities in New Hampshire have never publicly described the circumstances of the killings, the motive or investigators’ reasons for suspecting Shippee. They say the investigation is ongoing.

“The length of the investigation has been in large part due to personnel changes within State Police,” Assistant Attorney General Jesse O’Neill wrote in an Aug. 12 motion.

Initially, the investigation was in the hands of a State Police detective and Hinsdale’s police chief at the time, Todd Faulkner. But around the end of 2019 and start of 2020, the detective retired, and Faulkner left for a job with the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office, according to the motion.

“At that point, the case was reassigned to another State Police detective, but shortly thereafter was brought under the purview of the State Police Major Crime Unit and assigned to two investigators within that unit,” O’Neill wrote in the August motion. “These investigators have now familiarized themselves with the history of the investigation and are taking steps to advance the investigation towards a conclusion.”

The Attorney General’s Office has consistently opposed the release of an affidavit from April 2019 that outlines the state’s case for charging Shippee with murder.

The Sentinel has been to court three times since June 2019 seeking access to that document, which is sealed. The Attorney General’s Office has argued that disclosure would harm the ongoing investigation because it could influence what potential witnesses tell police.

“To unseal the affidavit in support of Mr. Shippee’s arrest at this point presents a significant risk of tainting the ongoing investigation and preventing it from reaching a legitimate conclusion,” O’Neill wrote in the Aug. 12 motion.

In an order issued Sept. 4 and received by The Sentinel on Monday, Judge David S. Forrest of the 8th Circuit Court in Keene ruled for a third time that the affidavit can remain sealed.

After hearing closed-door testimony from N.H. State Police Detective Matthew Anderson, Forrest wrote that the state had presented adequate justification to keep the records secret for now.

“In short, the Court finds that there is still an ongoing active pre-indictment criminal investigation, which could be jeopardized by unsealing the warrants and affidavits,” Forrest wrote.

However, he ordered the Attorney General’s Office to update him on the status of the investigation by Dec. 4 and wrote that he would immediately schedule another hearing if the office continues to oppose disclosure.

Court documents like affidavits are presumed public. But judges can keep them sealed if convinced that the government’s need to keep information under wraps overrides the public’s interest in seeing them.

Under N.H. Supreme Court precedent, the authorities have more leeway to block disclosure when an investigation is in a “pre-indictment” phase.

In a Sept. 2 hearing, Forrest noted that The Sentinel has questioned how the investigation could still qualify as “pre-indictment,” given that the suspect has long since died. Forrest asked whether that was because police were investigating whether others were involved.

O’Neill did not answer directly, saying he would address that in the closed-door hearing without The Sentinel present.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the ruling or respond to specific questions about the scope of its investigation, whether it is expected to conclude by Dec. 4 and how the office defines “pre-indictment.”

“Based on the New Hampshire Rules of Professional Conduct, in particular, Rules 3.6 and 3.8, we are unable to comment on this matter as the investigation remains ongoing,” Kate Giaquinto, a spokeswoman for the office, said via email Monday, referring to rules covering pre-trial publicity and a prosecutor’s responsibility.