Seacoast mayors say federal funds will help with education, homelessness, mental health problems

Dover Mayor Bob Carrier said 13 mayors in New Hampshire have been working together to make sure their voices are heard during the course of the pandemic.

Mayors on the Seacoast say funding from the American Rescue Plan will help them get children into school in-person full time and address issues such as mental health problems and homelessness within their communities.

Four Seacoast mayors gathered at City Hall in Dover on Monday, where U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen addressed funding from the American Rescue Plan.

Dana Hilliard, mayor of Somersworth, said the school district there is in a hybrid model until at least May 3.

Hilliard is also the middle school principal. He said they are looking at the possibility of implementing extended learning opportunities over the course of the summer to help students catch up academically, socialize, and address any mental health challenges prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“Most schools throughout New Hampshire right now, their educators are doing deep dives into data across the board to be able to plan that when the dollars come in, how can you extend the learning,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard said summer programming would be more than just catching up on academics.

“It’s how can we capture these students, not just sitting in a classroom doing math over the summer but utilizing unique opportunities of regaining those socialization skills. They haven’t been with their peers. They’ve been away from each other for a long time,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard said the federal funding will ensure that the doors of schools are open in the fall and ready to serve children.

Rochester Mayor Caroline McCarley said students there have been in-person full time for much of the academic year. Having children in school has been a top priority for the city.

“Sometimes you’re very concerned for kids when they are not in school, what’s happening. We felt like it was critically important that we get to in-person learning as soon as we could,” McCarley said.

McCarley said COVID-19 has shown Americans that there is a “phenomenally disgusting income disparity in this country” and it affects her city.

McCarley said she is happy to see federal funding for housing in the American Rescue Plan. She said when parents have a place to sleep, kids have a place to sleep and that is reflected with better outcomes long-term.

Portsmouth Mayor Rick Becksted said the past year has taught him about how his city helps surrounding communities with social issues.

“I never knew how much we helped out Dover and Somersworth when it came to homelessness. We’ve got great organizations that are in there and we share. It’s important that we continue to share that, even after this pandemic is over,” Becksted said.

Dover Mayor Bob Carrier said money from the American Rescue Plan will help reimburse his city for bills officials have already fronted the money for.

Carrier said the mayors in New Hampshire have worked together over the course of the last year, sharing ideas and protecting their citizens.

“The 13 mayors in the state have Zoom calls once a month, at least, and we compare notes. And those notes are very similar, from homeless shelters, from the pandemic, from the schools, right down the line,” Carrier said.

Carrier said the information gathered is sent to elected representatives.

“And the voices are heard. And it’s a strong voice because it’s 13 strong communities,” Carrier said.

Shaheen said $350.5 million will go to New Hampshire specifically for education.

The state will also receive $40.9 million to help expand COVID-19 testing in New Hampshire schools.

One of the key provisions Shaheen supported in the American Rescue Plan is approximately $3.9 billion in emergency funding for substance use and mental health programs, including $1.5 billion for block grants for prevention and treatment of substance use, as well as $1.5 billion for block grants for community mental health services.

“While the issues differ whether it’s Dover or Somersworth, Rochester or Portsmouth, the fact is that everyone has said the same thing. Communities need help, and they needed it yesterday,” Shaheen said.

Shaheen called the pandemic a public health and economic emergency. She said under the American Rescue Plan, local officials will have more flexibility to address the most pressing needs in their communities.