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Education

St. Louis-Area Camps Get Ready For Another Pandemic Summer

Gateway Region YMCA camp counselor Sydney King (center) lines up with her campers in July 2020. The local YMCA has not stopped offering afterschool care during the pandemic, instilling safety measures such as mandatory mask wearing, maintaining social distancing and keeping activity group sizes small.
Megan Touchette
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Gateway Region YMCA
Gateway Region YMCA camp counselor Sydney King lines up with her campers in July. The local YMCA has not stopped offering afterschool care during the pandemic, instilling safety measures such as mandatory mask wearing, maintaining social distancing and keeping activity group sizes small.

Summer break is around the corner for many children, and St. Louis-area summer camp operators are again deciding whether to run in-person programs or keep them virtual.

The Gateway Region YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis will hold in-person summer camp programs once again. Others, such as St. Louis University’s summer programs for K-12 students, will be held entirely online.

“It was an easy decision for us at the YMCA to make that decision to go in person,” said Laurie McTearnan, vice president of child care and inclusion services at the Gateway Region YMCA. In-person child care has continued without disruption since the coronavirus pandemic spurred many programs to go virtual last spring, McTearnan said.

“When our survey results came back from the summer, parents were just really pleased with how the summer had gone,” McTearnan said. “They said you practiced everything that you preach that you told us you would do. Our kids were always safe.”

The Gateway Region YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis are both operating at reduced capacity in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. The YMCA will run at 80% capacity this year, while the Boys and Girls Club predicts enrollment numbers will be around 50% of its typical summer capacity.

Camps will implement the same safety measures as last year, such as keeping children in small groups during activities, mandating mask-wearing, adding hand sanitizing stations, conducting temperature checks and curbside pickup and drop-off.

“We've already made the decision to limit the number of field trips that we do, because we think that's still kind of a hotspot for us,” said Dr. Flint Fowler, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. “But we will operate our swimming pool this summer there. We know there are safe ways to do that.”

Demand for summer camps among parents has gone up from last year, according to a survey from Blueprint4Summer, a local advocacy organization: 65% of parents surveyed said they would only consider sending their kids to an in-person camp this summer. Last year, 50% of parents surveyed said they were considering in-person camp options.

Zasmine Johnson, programs manager at Blueprint4Summer, said parents are eager for in-person camp options after an entire school year of virtual learning for their kids. “We know a lot of camps are trying to figure out how they can infuse reading and literacy and other academic skills,” she said. Limiting screen time and increasing physical activity outside were top priorities among survey respondents.

Fowler of the Boys and Girls Clubs agreed. “Our children have had a fairly traumatic experience over these last several months, not being able to interact with their peers on a regular basis [and] sort of being cooped up in their home,” he said.

Fowler and Johnson said attending summer camp would be a good way for children to slowly return to a day-to-day routine before the fall, when many schools are looking to hold in-person classes.

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Megan Touchette
Campers at a Gateway Region YMCA summer camp watch a science movie in July 2020.

Megan Betts, a stay-at-home mother to three children, said she is only comfortable with sending her kids to participate in outdoor activities for the summer.

“[As] with many children, especially that live in St. Louis, two out of three have asthma,” Betts said. “This idea of even taking them inside somewhere, even though the chances were still low, was very, you know, just very scary to us.”

“The data that’s come out saying children are less affected by [COVID-19] is very important to us,” said Betts, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

Some parents, like Jennifer Finney, will only look into in-person options when their children are vaccinated. Both of Finney’s children are teenagers, and she said summer camp is low on the family’s list of priorities.

“We are happy that [Webster Groves High School] has virtual summer school options,” Finney said. “I also don't want to sacrifice our year of doing virtual and staying safe by suddenly introducing risk.”

Not all area summer camps will have in-person options. Camps at the Challenger Learning Center-St. Louis and most programs at St. Louis University are entirely virtual this year. Southern Illinois University-Carbondale will offer a hybrid model of in-person and online activities for campers. Illinois updated its camp guidelines on March 18 and will limit indoor activities to 30 people or fewer.

Follow Megan on Twitter: @meganisonline

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