Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

The Panic About Summer

For most students, virtual school is over by now. For parents, the panic about what to do next has been building for weeks.

The summer offers a break from the pressure of trying to teach children while also working from home. But it also opens up vast expanses of time to fill without the same availability of summer camps that working parents rely upon during these months.

Blueprint4Summer, a free resource that allows families to search for camps in the St. Louis metro area, surveyed 558 families from 80 ZIP codes in Missouri and Illinois to explore families’ needs during the summer. Across the region, families shared a number of concerns:

-- Safety. Families are weary of stay-at-home orders, but also deeply worried there won’t be safe, engaging, affordable camp options this summer as states reopen and employers require parents to return. Half of those surveyed said they would consider in-person camps once stay-at-home orders are lifted.

-- Socialization. Families prefer in-person camps to virtual ones, pending public orders and robust camp action to maintain safe spaces. Only 33% of those surveyed said they would consider virtual or online camps. Some reasons given: Some are concerned about the amount of time children have already spent inside, staring at devices, in the past few months. Other parents said they aren’t sure what virtual camp will look like, and they don’t want to be in charge of teaching during virtual experiences. If they did opt for virtual camp, they would expect it to cost less than in-person camp.

-- Enrichment. Many families use day camps as child care for children who are too old for day care centers. They are looking for fun, educational and creative experiences for their children. There’s a documented summer slide -- learning loss that affects children who lack opportunities to continue learning during summer -- and camps help stave off that effect.

Meanwhile, discussions have been raging for weeks in parent chat groups about how to handle the summer. Some of the ideas include finding one other family to merge with to share child care duties. Other parents plan to implement online lessons of some kind, along with household chores that must be completed before the screen-time bingeing begins. Those who have been furloughed or laid off have the added uncertainty of waiting to see if they are called back to work and trying to scramble for care at the last minute.

Some have asked grandparents to self-quarantine for two weeks, while their children are also on lockdown, so they can provide child care with less risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Those with more flexibility to continue working from home are hoping to schedule play dates and pool time to occupy some of the hours and burn off energy for their little ones.

One mother said, perhaps jokingly, “I think we are just going to shove them outside and let them fight?”

The uncertainty of how to handle summer offers an opportunity for startups like Happy Camper Live, a subscription-based app that provides programming for children. Allison Miller, a camp director of 22 years, launched the app two years ago with a vision to create a virtual summer camp platform. Parents and campers choose from activities and programs led by camp counselors. The app’s programming is not based on a conferencing platform like Zoom, nor does it offer one-on-one interaction.

The desire for reintegrating face-to-face human contact for their children has led parents to consider what level of risk they can handle during the pandemic. Some are comfortable with creating mini-camps with a few friends or neighbors. Others will have no choice but to hunt for affordable child care options near their home or workplace.

The scramble for parents to try to work around a disrupted $4 billion summer camp industry means the summer will provide little relief from the ongoing pressure of the pandemic.

And let’s not even get started about what might happen in the fall.