Camp Living Room: Changes To Summer Camps Are Leaving Parents Scrambling

Some camps have already canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and others are rethinking their programs to ensure camper safety.

Kids play during summer day camp in Evanston
Typical summer day camp games, like pictured here in Evanston from a recent summer, are unlikely to happen this year because of the coronavirus pandemic — if camp happens at all. Courtesy of Evanston Park, Recreation, Community Services
Kids play during summer day camp in Evanston
Typical summer day camp games, like pictured here in Evanston from a recent summer, are unlikely to happen this year because of the coronavirus pandemic — if camp happens at all. Courtesy of Evanston Park, Recreation, Community Services

Camp Living Room: Changes To Summer Camps Are Leaving Parents Scrambling

Some camps have already canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and others are rethinking their programs to ensure camper safety.

As the school year winds down, kids would normally be getting ready for summer camp. Picture days swimming in the pool, working on arts and crafts and sharing popsicles with friends. But as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Illinois, the summer camp tradition is uncertain.

“I’m not holding my breath that any of this is happening,” said Chicago parent Jessica Besser-Rosenberg. “Everyone should be making contingency plans right now if possible.”

For parents and day camps across the Chicago area, it’s time for Plan B. Faced with the reality that social distancing restrictions will almost certainly be extended into the summer, parents and camps are working on backup plans. Some camps have already canceled, while others are talking about limiting size, changing some sports to just skill and drill or offering Zoom camp.

Meanwhile, parents are scrambling.

Besser-Rosenberg had registered her nearly five-year-old son for four different summer camps, including a bike camp where he could learn to ride without training wheels. Now, she’s thinking the bike riding will have to happen the old-fashioned way.

Besser-Rosenberg and her husband are fortunate to be able to work from home, she said, but mixing that with caring for their two kids is becoming more difficult as the weather gets warmer and tensions mount. She’s considering “Camp Grandma’s House” in Canada.

“We may decide to take our work-from-home and childcare scenario over the border where my parents would be able to help out more with the kids,” she said. “We would have a backyard and basement, because we don’t have either of those.”

Illinois’ stay-at-home order is set to expire at the end of May but could be extended. Social distancing is expected to persist over the summer for the Chicago area. Gov. JB Pritzker has a plan to reopen the state in five phases on a region-by-region basis, based on progress in key health indicators. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday laid out a similar plan for the city.

While parents are coming up with their backup plans, camps are also busy planning out different scenarios.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago said it still hopes to open its camps in June. They’ve been hearing from families about what they want to see for this year’s program.

“Many said they’re looking to just have their kids have fun and let some of that cooped up energy out after weeks of being house-bound,” said Man Yee Lee, the YMCA spokeswoman. “On the other spectrum, though, we also saw some parents are looking for more opportunities to continue academic learning.”

Lee said, of course, camp will certainly look different. That means limiting the number of kids participating and changing the pickup and drop-off process. They’re also planning to have Zoom meetings if in-person camp is delayed. The Chicago Park District has postponed its registration and has moved the camp start day to July.

Programs are also considering virtual options, including a virtual art camp in Evanston.

“We could provide all the materials for the families to pick up before the camp starts and create a Zoom sign-in for the families to come out daily with the instructor leading the kids,” said Lawrence Hemingway, the director of the Evanston Park, Recreation and Community Services division in the northern suburb.

Changing health guidelines

Hemingway said the challenge is not knowing yet what the actual health guidelines will be. He said some families have pulled their registration for various reasons. This includes some families who might not be able to afford it now. He said his division has a plan for everything, including further cutting down the number of campers and relocating camps.

“We’ll be prepared to start at a later date [or] put social distancing guidelines in place,” he said.

He said some of the more contact-heavy sports programs will shift to skill and drill camps. “Horse” might be the only game played at basketball camp.

Hemingway said normally they would’ve interviewed potential camp workers in March. They’re holding off on making job offers for the summer.

The last option is canceling in-person camp.

“We’ll have to figure out what that impact looks like,” Hemingway said. “We really would hate it if we aren’t able to offer those opportunities to our young people.”

Bolingbrook mom Tenille Jackson has already canceled lifeguard camp for her fifth grade daughter. She’s spent the last few summers in the pool, but not this year.

“Especially after Dr. [Ngozi] Ezike talked about the fecal shedding, I was like nope,” Jackson said. “We’re not doing that.”

Dr. Ezike with the Illinois Department of Public Health said for the time being, public swimming pools pose a health risk in spreading coronavirus.

Jackson is founder of a group called Chicagoland Mom Squad. She said while some parents are pulling their kids from camp out of health concerns, others don’t have much of a choice but to hold out hope. She said parents should talk with their employer if the only option is to continue working from home while caring for their children.

Jackson knows her daughter is disappointed about spending summer at home, so she’s coming up with daily activities — masked bike rides, gardening and s’mores.

“The big thing for me right now is I really want to make sure we’re opening in September,” Jackson said.

It might not be the summer anyone wants, but she thinks schools reopening in the fall should be the priority.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.