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Summer Camps Are Happening, But Parents Wonder If It's Better To Play Camp Counselor

Children play in the dirt before summer camp at the Carondelet YMCA gets underway on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney |St. Louis Public Radio
Children play in the dirt at a Carondelet YMCA camp last August. The Y will hold camps this summer, but they'll be centered more on small group activities, and there won't be swimming.

This summer, there will be just as many kids at Camp Home as Camp Anawanna. 

While summer camps are allowed to resume Monday in St. Louis and St. Louis County under a list of public health restrictions, parents find they have fewer camp options and lingering safety concerns during the pandemic.

Only half of the parents surveyed by Blueprint4Summer, an advocacy organization, said they’ll definitely send their kids to camp. Another 40% are in a wait-and-see position.

“What they care about is safety, so over 80% of the families across all ZIP codes said that safety is most important,” said Blueprint4Summer Programs Manager Zasmine Johnson. “They want to know what are the measures that are in place that the camp is doing to keep their kids safe.”

Those measures include daily wellness checks of staff and campers, mask-wearing for staff and sometimes campers, no large group activities, no swimming for camps in the city and no field trips.

“So I think this summer will definitely look different than any other summer,” Johnson said.

Blueprint4Summer’s database of camps also is a third smaller than it was last year, and pickings for early June are slimmer. 

St. Louis University, one of the larger camp organizers, pulled the plug on camps through at least June. But the Boys & Girls Club of Greater St. Louis and the Gateway Region YMCA are holding camps.

“We're still going to have a lot of fun, we're going to sing camp songs, we're going to get dirty, we're going to just do regular camp things, but do it within safety measures,” said Laurie McTearnen, the vice president of child care services for the YMCA.

The Y will put on many of its day camp options, though with lower enrollment capacity. It’s also working on how to open its sleepaway camp, Camp Lakewood.

“Our goal is to be able to offer a residential camp experience as well to those who would like to come,” McTearnen said.

At day and overnight camps, kids will be kept in small groups for the duration and not allowed to mingle. Meals and hands-on activities will be pre-packed. 

Meanwhile, virtual youth camp options are popping up. Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and the Challenger Science Center will offer virtual camps.

“A lot of (parents) are interested in virtual, they just have had a bad experience with spring learning,” Blueprint’s Johnson said. “And so they don’t prefer virtual, but if they can get an idea of what virtual will look like, they’ll have a bit more ease with having that.”

Child care, be it school, day care or summer camps, is a key component of being able to restart the economy. Parents who can’t work from home need options to send their kids to when they go to work.

McTearnen from the Y said children having a place to play, interact and learn is too important to call off for the whole summer.

“We wanted to meet that need in the community not only for kids to get outside and be kids,” she said. 

The Y also considered virtual camp. But when parents were asked, they gave a thumbs-down.

“The resounding results were, 'Please don't cancel camp, please don't have virtual camp, my child needs to get out and be social with other friends and do normal activities,'” McTearnen said.

A child checks on an art project during a summer camp at Forest Park June 28, 2017.
Credit File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A child checks on an art project during a summer camp at Forest Park in 2017. About a third of camps aren't running this summer. Many others will only be virtual.

But for parents able to make a choice, many are reluctant to let their kids out of the house. 

Todd Waggoner’s 6-year-old son really enjoyed the YMCA day camp last summer, but he won’t be going this month. 

“He loves to swim and go to the pool, so that was always his highlight,” said Waggoner, who’s a stay-at-home parent.

While they have a kiddie pool in the backyard, Waggoner still worries his three children will be bored of it by summer’s end. 

“His opinion is that he wants to go” to camp, Waggoner said. They haven’t ruled out sending him in July or August, depending on the public health situation.

Four-year-old Lucy Mae Clay also loves water. Her mother, Natalie Self, describes her daughter as a very sociable person and said she really enjoyed going to programs at Harris-Stowe State University last summer.

But Self is on the fence about signing her back up this summer.

“Lucy loves camp, she loves her friends and she loves everything about it,” Self said. “And so I was anxiously looking forward to her being able to participate in camp this summer, and the circumstances have changed, and that's difficult for us.”

So right now, Self said, Plan B is spending the summer at home.

“Camp Mom will look similar, I think, to what it has looked like for the past couple of months.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.