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Annapolis to Use CARES Funds to Cover Low-Income Internet Bills

Roughly $75,000 from the city’s $2.2 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money will be used to extend Internet access for 800 low-income families throughout the city.

by Brooks Dubose, The Capital / September 25, 2020

(TNS) — Up to 800 low-income families in Annapolis won’t have to worry about their Internet bill for a year thanks to a recently announced city program that covers the cost of wireless access.

In partnership with Comcast, the Internet Essential Partner Program will ensure those who most need Internet access during the coronavirus pandemic — school-age children and seniors — will get it no matter where they are, Mayor Gavin Buckley said. Buckley and other officials held a news conference Thursday at Robinwood Community Center.

“This pandemic has probably been the hardest on low-income residents,” Buckley said. “They’re balancing how to pay rent, to pay utilities and put food on the table.”

The initiative will cost about $75,000, said Assistant City Manager Lyn Farrow, who led the effort. The money will come from the $2.2 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding the city received from Anne Arundel County — firstly provided by the federal government — to be spent on coronavirus-related expenses.

The program is eligible for such funding because the pandemic has forced children and seniors to use online services when they usually wouldn’t need to, Farrow said. It is expected to begin in October.

To apply, residents should approach their property manager. The city will be reaching out to other subsidized housing properties to encourage residents to participate, and the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis will be sending a letter to all residents with sign-up instructions. Eligible families must live in the 21401 or 21403 ZIP codes.

The early months of the pandemic showed a disparity between some students who had ready access to the Internet and those who did not, often called the digital divide. In April, about 3,500 Anne Arundel students — mostly in the Annapolis cluster — had not logged onto Google Classroom as the school system initiated an online learning model.

The Anne Arundel County Public School system announced this summer that the first semester of the school year would be entirely online and purchased 55,000 Chromebooks to increase connectivity. In a statement, Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto called the city’s initiative “a huge step forward" to help children with their classwork.

“Helping families bridge the digital divide is a responsibility that belongs to all of us and the city and Comcast have stepped up to the plate with this program,” Arlotto said in a statement.

For months, the housing authority has sought solutions to improve connectivity among its residents, said Melissa Maddox-Evans, the housing authority’s executive director. The local agency set up homework clubs at each housing authority community center, she said, to let children use free Wi-Fi and get tutoring to help adapt to the new system.

The new Internet program will ensure that no matter where a student is, they have access to learning materials, Buckley said.

Additionally, many seniors are forced to use telehealth and telemedicine services during the pandemic as hospitals try to limit their in-person contact, said Dan Tootle of the Anne Arundel County Veterans Affairs Commission.

There are 52,000 veterans in Anne Arundel County, the second-largest in the state. Increased access to the Internet has been critical in addressing that population’s health needs, Tootle said.

“As a senior, and also as a veteran, the pandemic has absolutely changed the way that medical services and other services are delivered to our older folks here in the county,” he said. “I have used it myself. It’s very easy.”

At Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments, a 150-unit public housing property made up of older Annapolis residents; there are only three public computers, Buckley said.

Alderman Fred Paone, R-Ward 2, who represents Blum residents, said he hoped “everybody takes advantage” of the program.

“Telemedicine is the new way of receiving medical care that in many cases that is badly needed," Paone said.

Alderman DaJuan Gay, D-Ward 6, who represents several public housing properties, said he hoped the program could be expanded beyond the first year as city residents could face what might be a long-term reliance on web-related services during the pandemic and beyond.

©2020 The Capital, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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