The Gutraj family was on spring break in Memphis last year before the pandemic sparked mass shutdowns.
Like many of us, they were in a bit of denial about how dramatically life was about to change. Then, their children’s Missouri school district sent a notice that students wouldn’t be coming back to classrooms.
Within a few weeks, Valerie Gutraj began getting emails that her kids’ various summer camps were also getting canceled -- one by one. She and her husband both work full-time, so she scrambled to find a nanny for the summer. They adhered to safety guidelines, so whenever the nanny had a possible COVID exposure, she would quarantine away from them.
“(The kids) would wind up on the iPad for times that would make me cringe,” Gutraj said.
Ashley Cheatham also remembers the moment when her son’s camps canceled their sessions. Neither she nor her husband could work from home.
“In an act of desperation, I posted on Facebook that I’m basically screwed,” she said. A friend volunteered to babysit her son when she had to go to her retail job.
For working parents, summer camp is about more than their kids swimming, making crafts and hanging out with friends. It’s essential child care for children who have aged out of daycare but are too young to stay unsupervised all day.
While some camps tried to pivot to virtual programming, many were forced to cancel entirely.
The impact was felt nationally. Of the more than 15,000 camps in the U.S., 80% of overnight camps and 40% of day camps shuttered last summer, according to the American Camp Association. About 19.5 million children missed out on camp experiences.
This year, however, camp is back.
Summer camps have had more time and experience to prepare, and many are reopening with safety protocols in place or with hybrid options.
Parents may be just as ready for summer as their kids.
“I tear up thinking about my kids going back to building relationships as opposed to being little screen zombies,” Gutraj said. Cheatham is also looking forward to her son playing outdoors more. She’s keeping an eye out for affordable camp options that also have precautions in place.
Ron Heinz, owner of Code Ninjas in O’Fallon, Missouri, says he’s beginning to see business come back as parents become more comfortable with safety measures, increasing immunization rates and lower caseloads. But he has noticed that there is more hesitation to commit early this year.
“There’s a whole bunch who are waiting until it's closer,” he said. In pre-pandemic times, planning for the summer started far earlier in the year for working parents. Sada Lindsey remembers having an alert set on her calendar for the day registration opened in January last year. She would have a spreadsheet ready with the various dates and locations to cobble together a plan for the summer.
Her family ended up sharing a nanny with another family last summer after the camps shut down. This year, she is hopeful her daughter will get to have a more typical summer experience with her friends.
Jennifer Biermann spent last summer tag-teaming with her spouse while they worked from home and watched their kids, now 7 and 5. They purchased a large inflatable pool and water slides for the backyard. Biermann would sit outside working on her laptop on the patio while the children splashed in the water. She says she feels more comfortable sending her children back to camp this summer but is still nervous about the risk of transmitting infections. She would like to see a higher vaccination rate in the St. Louis area to help tamp down the spread.
But after a year marked with social distance, months of distance learning and missed milestone events, the return to camp feels like a long-anticipated return to normalcy.
Children who were cheated out of a year of their childhoods can ease back into carefree summer days.
“It’s a camp, but it feels like so much more than that,” Biermann said.