Mesa ponders free laptops for needy kids The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa ponders free laptops for needy kids

Mesa ponders free laptops for needy kids
Mesa
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By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

Mesa’s Small Business Reemergence Program will cost less than expected because only a fraction of the city’s estimated 12,000 businesses have sought grants to help them recover from the pandemic’s impact.

And that may enable the city to buy hundreds of disadvantaged elementary school children laptops.

Although planning is in an early stage, Mesa officials may use some of their $90 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Act aid to buy laptops for children who have been shut out of distance learning when schools were closed.

Although Mesa Public Schools and most districts made lessons on paper available to kids whose households have no internet access or devices, most education experts agree they are a poor substitute for virtual learning.

In MPS, officials told the Governing Board recently that an estimated 7,000 of the district’s approximate 59,000 students have no devices or internet.

The city program would be directed at so-called Title 1 elementary schools – those with at least 40 percent of all students living in homes at or below the poverty line. Mesa district schools and two Gilbert Public Schools located within Mesa city limits would be included.

High school and junior high school students in both districts have been provided with laptops.

Distance learning could become a routine part of education in the 2020-21 school year.

Kathy Hoffman, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, has promised to issue guidelines by the end of the month for schools to reopen in late summer.

But superintendents already are worrying about significant numbers of parents who don’t want to send their kids to school out of concerns over the virus. Moreover, a possible resurgence of virus cases could force a statewide school shutdown.

“I think the new normal will be as early as this fall, our children might not be going back to school in August,’’ Mayor John Giles said. “I think distance learning will become a bigger and bigger part of the new normal going forward.’’

Two GPS Title I elementary schools in Mesa – Harris Elementary and Boulder Creek – would be included in the city’s plan.

Mesa Councilman Dave Luna, who suggested adding the laptops to the array of Mesa Cares outreach programs, said it is vital that disadvantaged students not fall behind their peers because of a lack of resources.

“I think this is a better way to provide economic opportunity to our students. We know there are kids in poverty that are lagging behind,’’ said Luna, a retired MPS educator.

Such critical details as how many computers would be purchased, how much they would cost and how many students would receive them are yet to be determined.

Giles, Councilwoman Jen Duff and Vice Mayor Mark Freeman all spoke in support of providing the laptops and the council eventually voted unanimously for staff to develop details for a laptop distribution program.

Luna said his concept is for the city to make payments to MPS and GPS, which would decide what kind of computers to buy and how to ensure WIFI service at homes or community internet “hotspots.’’

Gilbert Superintendent Dr. Shane McCord said he appreciates Mesa realizing about that about a third of his district is in Mesa. Arizona school district boundaries usually do not match city boundaries.

“The ability to use technology to benefit our students has been amplified,’’ McCord said. “Our teachers have pushed into the technology world.’’

Expanding Mesa Cares to include distance learning is possible because the first round of the Small Business Reemergence Program will cost about $6 or $7 million – not the $20 million originally set aside by City Manager Chris Brady.

He said the $20 million budget was based on an estimate and that he is confident Mesa is reaching its target audience.

“I think it’s been a huge success in terms of being able to connect with our smallest micro-businesses,’’ Brady said. “I think we are making good progress with single proprietorships and those with 25 employees or less.’’

Brady, Giles, and Assistant Economic Development Director Jaye O’Donnell all said they are satisfied with the response.

But others criticized the program for insufficient outreach and a web site that they said was difficult to use.

Community organizations – such as the Asian Chamber of Commerce, Mesa Chamber of Commerce and RAIL-Mesa – have been marketing the program, encouraging as many businesses to apply as possible to hit today’s deadline.

RAIL stands for retail, arts, innovation and livability and is focused on downtown Mesa community issues.

Terry Benelli, executive director of LiSC-Phoenix and a longtime economic development expert in Mesa, said businesses may be reticent in dealing with the government and that a level of trust is necessary for them to cooperate.

“I think this kind of program need to be taken out of City Hall and put in the hands of ones who have connections with businesses,’’ Benelli said.

But Brady was worried about losing control of the program and getting audited by federal officials if an outside agency failed to follow the Cares Act rules.

“I know we allocated $20 million for that, but that was really a shot in the dark. We really didn’t know what the need would be,’’ Giles said. “I am not at all disappointed the need is closer to $7 million than $20 million.’’

A second phase, scheduled to start in early June, would provide technical assistance to a wider range of business in such areas as accounting, digital marketing, developing a web site and taking online payments, O’Donnell said.

Consultants also could show restaurants how to space their tables to comply with social distancing requirements, she said.

O’Donnell said more than 700 businesses have at least started the process of applying online, but some had to stop and start over again when they realized they lacked the necessary documentation.

She declined to release a number of completed applications but said she will provide a complete report to the City Council at a study session on Thursday.

A document provided to the Tribune early last week showed 391 applicants had requested a total of more than $5 million. The number of completed applications had grown to nearly 450 by mid-week.

O’Donnell said restaurants and small retail stores were the primary applicants for the grants. She said the smaller number of applications might allow the city to fund requests either fully or close to that level.

“Those who have applied really need the funds and they are determined to re-open,’’ O’Donnell said. “We’re really pleased with the public’s response. We feel this program is a success. We started this program to help small, underbanked businesses.’’

She said a language barrier, lack of computer literacy and businesses already receiving funding through the federal Payroll Protection Plan may all have been detriments in generating applications.

Business receiving grants through other federal programs are not eligible for the city cash payments but will be eligible for technical assistance.

Anyone still interested in applying by today’s deadline can go to mesaaz.gov/CARESbizgrant or call 480-644-CARE.

“While the demand is strong on the grant side, I think there will be greater demand on the technical assistance side,’’ O’Donnell said.

Sally Harrison, executive director of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, said the technical assistance program will improve the businesses that survive COVID-19 and that business owners need to accept the business climate has changed.

“You would hope people would not put their head in the sand and wait for this to blow over,’’ she said. “Just hunkering down is not going to get you where you want to be. You have to be creative.’’

The expansive Mesa CARES effort, as outlined in Brady’s budget for relief act funding, also includes:

  A $1 million expansion to the Mesa CAN utility assistance program, which previously included $125,000. Mesa, Salt River Project and Southwest Gas utilities are all eligible.

  $10 million for the Feeding Mesa program, which greatly expands the supply of food boxes for the hungry and prepared meals. The Mesa Convention Center has been converted into a food distribution center.

  $50 million for police and fire response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brady said the act creates an exception for police and fire services to be reimbursed and will delay layoffs. Giles said all large cities are using relief act funds in the same manner. Council member Jeremy Whittaker disagreed, saying the money should be used to help residents and stimulate the economy.

  “I am entirely opposed to using such a large chunk of this money because we cannot balance our own budget,’’ Whittaker said.

$500,000 for the Operation Off the Streets homeless reduction program.

  $2.5 million to retrofit city buildings to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

$250,000 for employee health and wellness, including expanded COVID-19 testing.

$500,000 for personal protective equipment and additional cleaning of city facilities.

  $2.5 million for expanded technology allowing employees to work from home.

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