Remote school

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.”

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.