- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2020

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Students living at Loisann’s Hope House - the Fredericksburg-based organization that provides shelter to families experiencing homelessness - get to attend school every day in their own backyard.

Resident students typically attend Fredericksburg City Public Schools, which is conducting school remotely for at least the first nine weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

With families living together in one room and parents working on their education or job skills in order to break the cycle of homelessness, staff at Loisann’s Hope House worried that students wouldn’t have the support necessary to learn from home.

“Children are facing unique challenges here at Hope House,” said Audra Bielke, events and development officer. “When (the school division) made the announcement that the first 90 days would be virtual, we had to think outside the box to provide the kids with a safe and stable way to get off on the right foot.”

Staff’s solution was to “take learning outside the box,” Bielke said, by creating an outdoor classroom.

Every day, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. - with a break for lunch provided by the school division and the Salvation Army - children attend “school” in a 20-by-30-foot tent set up behind the shelter. The tent walls are tied up to maintain air circulation and students are grouped together by family at socially-distanced tables.

The city school division provided Loisann’s Hope House with a solar-powered Wi-Fi hotspot so all 12 students - who range in age from 5 to 17 - can access their online learning.

Kristen Kuppert, program and child services coordinator, stays with the children during their school day to provide oversight and keep them on track.

Biekle said the outdoor classroom supports parents as well as students.

“It alleviates the stress of online learning for parents and allows them to work towards their goals,” she said.

The staff didn’t have much time between the announcement of virtual learning and the start of school to raise funds for the cost of the outdoor classroom. So the organization paid for it upfront and is now hoping to raise $6,000 to cover the expenses.

Bielke said a donor has offered to match all donations up to $3,000.

Loisann’s Hope House would also like to recruit tutors - especially those who can help with reading and math - to work with the children in two-hour shifts during their school day.

“Because of how we have it set up, it’s safe for tutors to come in,” Bielke said.

Executive Director Lisa Crittenden said all residents of Loisann’s Hope House were tested for COVID-19 - along with the region’s entire homeless population - and none of the residents tested positive.

“No one has even been feeling bad or sick,” Crittenden said. “We just keep praying to the Lord that continues.”

The residents wear masks at all times when in communal areas and all received flu shots last week.

“We are being proactive in thinking about what we have to do in order to continue to be safe,” Crittenden said.

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