Analysis: Is Summer Canceled? From Virtual Camp to Family Mental Health Supports to Outdoor Adventures (Really!), 5 Ways to Reinvent School Vacation
Is summer actually canceled? This is a question that nobody wanted to ask, but it’s one that needs to be addressed. The potential consequences are significant, as summer plans could be completely wiped out, leaving both kids and parents feeling disappointed and overwhelmed. However, there is also an opportunity to view this summer as a fresh start, a blank canvas on which we can create new ways to provide care and enrichment for families.
In the age of COVID-19, all families are faced with numerous challenges. They must navigate through difficult decisions regarding childcare, health protection, and keeping their children entertained and connected. Unfortunately, these burdens are even greater for low-income families. Research conducted in Colorado, for example, has shown that neighborhoods with lower-income families, as well as black and Hispanic children, have fewer opportunities for enrichment during the summer.
Cost is also a major obstacle. The average hourly cost for summer programs is often equivalent to the minimum wage, making it difficult for caregivers to afford these options. With an impending economic downturn, the issues of access and affordability will become even more severe.
Traditional summer camps, which have always provided a wonderful escape for children of various income levels, are also facing difficult choices. Some cities and programs have decided to delay or cancel their offerings, while others are optimistic that business will resume as usual. However, it is important to recognize that even after businesses reopen, families with resources and flexibility may still choose to keep their children at home.
Ultimately, it is not just the caregivers and programs that will suffer from these uncertainties. The children themselves will also be negatively affected. Camps offer experiences that many children cherish, as they provide a sense of community, support, socialization, and enrichment. In simpler terms, they are fun.
So how can we use this summer as an opportunity to develop new ideas for fun, care, and enrichment for families and children, as well as generate revenue for the programs that offer them? Here are five suggestions:
1. Design options that cater to both online and offline preferences for families: Even as social distancing measures are relaxed, it is likely that many families and camps will proceed with caution. Therefore, it is important to incorporate virtual options into summer program designs. While the idea of a "virtual camp" may not sound appealing to traditionalists and families concerned about increased screen time, these programs have the potential to outperform some of the distance learning experiences provided by schools. Online activities can still be interactive and hands-on. For example, the Art Garage in Denver has created a YouTube channel where children can participate in virtual art classes using kits they can pick up from the garage. Online camps can also foster meaningful social connections. Connected Camps, which existed before the pandemic, offers online camps focused on Minecraft, e-sports, and digital maker spaces, allowing students to form connections with their peers. Furthermore, even online models can support offline play. Programs like Tinkergarten at Home provide families with DIY activities that can be enjoyed outdoors.
2. Prioritize connection and care: The prospect of a summer with limited structure and individual time poses a significant threat to the social and emotional well-being of children. Regardless of whether families choose online or offline options, it is crucial to ensure that children remain connected to their peers and caring adults. Local communities should prioritize offering flexible and affordable summer programs for low-income families, especially those with essential workers as parents.
3 Utilize new infrastructure to ensure sustainable and secure programs for children
These emerging hybrid and small-group solutions have the potential to offer families both online and offline options. However, for these solutions to truly be effective, it is crucial to have a sustainable infrastructure in place to support them. This means continuing efforts to provide access to at-home Wi-Fi beyond the current school year. In addition, programs need to find innovative ways to generate revenue. Many temporary virtual offerings are currently being provided for free or at a low cost. However, many out-of-school providers lack the technical expertise and resources to develop virtual models. They could benefit from platforms or technology-enabled content and solutions to seamlessly integrate into their programs. One such tool that is addressing this need is OutSchool. It is a marketplace that offers online small-group enrichment courses and has recently introduced an "organization" feature. This new feature allows summer programs to deliver their courses online while receiving revenue in a streamlined manner. While OutSchool takes a cut of the revenue, it offers a safe and secure platform for these programs.
4 Provide families with curated resources on interim solutions and program offerings
As summer approaches, parents are being bombarded with information from various organizations about how they are adapting their programs in response to COVID-19. The sheer number of options can be overwhelming. With the ever-changing circumstances, it is important to provide families with better information to help alleviate the stress of sifting through countless emails and social media posts. They need a central place where they can easily find appropriate learning opportunities and resources for their children based on their ages, interests, and family needs. This can include factors such as cost, child care availability, scholarships, location, and whether the program is offered virtually or in-person. One national example of such a resource is the Wide Open School, which was created in response to COVID-19. It provides a user-friendly interface that supports home-based learning, mental health, and curated online classes and content.
Community-based resources can also play a crucial role in this regard. For instance, RESCHOOL, based in Denver, has repurposed its Blueprint4SummerCO website to reflect the shifts and adaptations made by local learning providers due to COVID-19. Previously, the website primarily focused on in-person summer camps and classes in the Denver metro area. Now, it serves as a real-time snapshot of the emerging opportunities available throughout the region. It provides learning providers with a platform to market their programs to families for free, which is particularly important during this challenging time when organizations are striving to survive until summer and beyond.
5 Invest in families and community-driven learning programs
The shift from in-person to home-based learning has highlighted the importance of understanding how this dramatic change affects children and the overall learning systems. It is crucial to foster engaging learning experiences that spark curiosity and offer opportunities for social interaction, especially in these uncertain times. Moreover, there is a high likelihood that traditional schooling as we knew it pre-COVID will not fully resume in the near future, if ever. Therefore, there is a growing need for out-of-school and summer learning providers to become an integral and blended part of our education system moving forward.
Funders and educational leaders are seizing this opportunity to invest in more comprehensive learning offerings. The U.S. Department of Education, for instance, has recently launched a competitive grant program to encourage states to develop student-centered and adaptable learning opportunities in response to the pandemic. Local communities are also stepping up to support these initiatives. In Colorado, the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation is partnering with other local foundations and organizations to establish a fund that will identify and test innovative learning concepts from out-of-school providers, schools, districts, and community-based teams that address the needs of families and students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus will be on ideas that can be implemented this summer and inform long-term approaches for the 2020-21 academic year. Additionally, the initiative will provide families facing financial hardship with "learning dollars" that can be utilized for summer experiences such as virtual or in-person camps, as well as educational materials like books and maker kits to be used at home.
Building resilience during the summer and beyond
Summer learning solutions developed in response to COVID-19 cannot fully compensate for the financial losses experienced by many providers and families, nor can they replicate the extensive and enriching camp experiences of the past. However, these solutions can serve as a crucial step forward in designing more resilient education systems that offer learning opportunities in a variety of community settings.
Julia Freeland Fisher serves as the director of education research at the Christensen Institute. Her main objective is to enlighten policymakers and community leaders about the immense influence of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education domains. Amy Anderson, on the other hand, previously held the role of associate commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education and currently serves as the executive director of ReSchool Colorado. This initiative is dedicated to establishing the foundation for a revamped and modernized education system.