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Time to Bring Back Joy: Summer programs, families prepare for Summer Camps with COVID

Time to Bring Back Joy: Summer programs, families prepare for Summer Camps with COVID


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I met Sarah Fils during a hike in Eldorado Canyon State Park. Her two young kids climbed on boulders and ran down the path, enjoying the sunshine. It made me wonder how young children have processed the pandemic. From masked faces to distanced friends, things have changed.

Fils is a nurse and both her children attended childcare centers in person this past year. She plans to send them to summer sports camps.

“I am perfectly comfortable with it,” Fils said. “Get them back in life. There are a lot of precautions that can be made and that will keep them safe. I think that it’s important to talk to the camps and organizations and make sure they are following guidelines and being smart about it. Get our kids back out there. They deserve to enjoy their summer and be with friends and make friends and be out there. I’m all about it.”

One of her sons is five years old. She opted to keep him in pre-K this year.

“Our five-year-old was actually ready to go to kindergarten last year, and we kept him out because I did not want his kindergarten experience to be online,” Fils said. “I thought that was ridiculous. That’s not what kindergarten is supposed to be, so we kept him back. So much of it is about imaginative play and interaction with other kids. That’s how kids learn—through play.” [Editor’s note: keeping kids safe by learning online in a pandemic – when children were found to be superspreaders – is not ridiculous, though we agree that play is necessary for children. The editor is a former ECE para at DPS.]

As she continued on with her hike, I acknowledged how hard being a mother and healthcare worker must be during the pandemic. She smiled and shrugged.

“It’s all good,” Fils said. “You’ve got to roll with it, right?”

Mothers shouldered the brunt of the homeschooling responsibilities during the pandemic, and 2.4 million are reporting feeling burnt out, according to a Maven study. With homeschooling duties falling onto mostly women, nearly 3 million women have left the workforce. With summer programs opening up to in-person, this may alleviate some feelings of burnout and reduce the growing unemployment rate among women.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not firmed up any set regulations for summer programming. They are still in the process of evaluating guidance. CDPHE are anticipating more relaxed restrictions than last summer, given Coloradans over the age of 70, who represent 78 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state, are receiving vaccinations first, according to the Colorado State Joint Information Center.

Despite the lack of updated regulations for summer 2021 programs in the state, many summer programs are forging ahead, utilizing the knowledge they’ve accrued from the past year operating with COVID-19.

Kari Palazzari is the executive director of  Studio Arts Boulder. Their summer pottery camps were one of the few camps operating in person in the summer of 2020. This summer they’re using similar protocols to last year. They are one of the city of Boulder’s contracted summer camps. The City of Boulder also contracts other in-person camps, like adventure camps provided by Coyle Outside, sailing and windsurfing camps provided by Community Sailing of Colorado, and biking provided by Avid 4 Adventure.

Studio Arts Boulder is housed in an old fire house, which is ideal for ventilation when they can open their big firehouse doors. When that’s not an option, they have several air filtration units. They’ve created additional cleaning stations and numbered their 22 throwing wheels and socially distanced them. They have a symptom-checking Google questionnaire that families fill out before entering the studio.

The pottery summer camps will be limited to 10 children in a class. While there is a limit to class size, the studio has increased their class offerings. Multiple classes can meet at the same time. The studio has a spacious upstairs and downstairs space. Children can learn hand building pottery, which is geared toward younger children. Children will create objects like animals and add their own creative touches. Children can also learn wheel throwing, which is focused on making basics like cups or bowls. Each student will leave with camp with a piece of pottery they’ve created. The pottery is fired in the outdoor kiln and put directly onto racks that families can access through an outdoor gate.

Children attending pottery camps at Studio Arts Boulder are required to wear masks. Photo courtesy of Studio Arts Boulder.

“One of the things we’ve heard over the past year from our students is how incredibly valuable it is for them to have this therapeutic outlet,” Palazzari said. “There’s lots of data behind this. Working with your hands and making something—being away from Zoom and away from technology—changes your brain chemistry. It changes your stress response in your body. This year especially, people have really needed these classes. I know from myself, that when I sit down at the wheel to throw, everything else fades into the background. That focus is all about being fully present. Pottery is the new yoga. It’s this meditative practice because you have to be fully present to what you’re doing and really pay attention to the feedback you’re getting from all your senses in order to know what’s happening with the clay.”

Palazzari is passionate that pottery is essential. During the stay-at-home order, Studio Arts Boulder taught virtually. Some students even rented wheels from the studio.

“It’s so hard to teach pottery remotely,” Palazzari said. “There’s very few people who take a class here and have some studio equipment at home. That’s very rare, which is why we exist. Our whole reason for existing is to make it accessible for people to do ceramics without having a ceramics studio in their house.”

She seems happy to have people back in the studio working on their wheels and children upstairs happily glazing their clay animal creations.

“Our preteens, they’re not interested in doing this at home,” Palazzari said. “They are not interested in having yet another Zoom education experience. They’re in Zoom all day for school. This is an opportunity to be sort of social. At least you’re in the room with other kids.”

Studio Arts Boulder is offering morning and afternoon camps for children throughout the summer. Scholarship programs are available. Palazzari remembers one of the students calling classes at the studio their “grounding force.”

“We have students who call this their happy place or call this their sanctuary because this is where they can kind of put everything else in the back of their minds and just be present—super healing,” Palazzari said. “It makes sense. Clay is ultimately earth. When your hands are in earth or clay, just like gardening, it does ground you in a very important way.”

Student working the pottery wheel during summer camp in 2020. Photo courtesy of Studio Arts Boulder.

Many camps and school districts in the Boulder area are opening their doors for in-person learning this summer. With the help of warm weather and over a year of COVID-19 experience, things are looking positive for kids to be able to attend summer camps. There are some steadfast rules that cover programs across the board. Children will have to wear masks and groups will be limited. Many programs rely on an online symptom questionnaire. For most camps, it’s advantageous for families to thoroughly read through COVID-19 requirements and have open, honest conversations with camp organizations.

Both Boulder Valley School District and Saint Vrain Valley School District are offering in-person, summer enrichment programs. Those are not to be confused with their summer learning programs, which have a more academic focus. Public school districts are using summer time to both offer enrichment opportunities while also reconciling the lapse of learning caused by the pandemic.

Students could lose five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021, according to a study conducted by McKinsey and Company. Those feeling these effects are felt more predominantly by Black, Latinx and Indigenous children, who already had existing gaps. School districts in the area recognize the importance of academic learning but also want to offer the enrichment activities that have been missing from many children’s lives this past year because they are deemed less essential.

Kim Black, Renee Williams and Angela Lauridsen all work for Boulder Valley School District. After a year of offering only virtual classes through their lifelong learning program, the district is planning to offer in-person lifelong learning summer camps. These summer camps will follow the same COVID guidelines and protocol that the district has been using for traditional, in-person learning in schools in the district.

Photo courtesy of BVSD Lifelong Learning.

“The reason we haven’t been doing in-person enrichment is we really needed to focus on school,” Williams, the director of BVSD Community Schools, said. “School’s been really hard this year, so our number one mission in the district is to educate kids.”

The district is watching the state’s COVID dial and hoping for the best, given the dropping COVID numbers in the state and the ability to teach summer camps outdoors.

“We’re hoping to be back in person in June,” Black, director of BVSD Community Schools Program, Lifelong Learning, said. “That’s still kind of up in the air. It will not look like 2019. It will be somewhere in between being shut down completely and 2019. It will include masks, social distancing and different cleaning protocols. A lot of it is going to depend on where we land on the dial when we get closer to summer. Children are not getting vaccinated right now yet, so there will still be masks involved and there will still be cleaning protocols involved and social distancing. We hope to be doing most of the summer camps outside.”

The lifelong learning program is offering about 600 summer programs. Some are programs created by BVSD and others contracted by the district, including Rocky Mountain Day Camp and Thorne Nature Experience.

The camps are spread throughout the radius of the district, and accept kids who aren’t in BVSD. Scholarships are available. Families must complete an online screening. Children must wear masks. Classes will be limited to 10 children and will be cohorted. BVSD works closely with health services and Boulder and Broomfield public health departments for guidance. The district emphasizes one of the most important ways that families can help keep camps safe. The district also encourages families to contact them with any questions or concerns about sending their kids to summer programming.

“If you’re feeling sick, stay home,” Lauridsen, the Lifelong Learning program Kid and Teen Program Coordinator, said. “I know we’ve been hearing that for over a year now, but really that’s number one.”

For those wanting online options, there are online class offerings as well, including anything from filmmaking, YouTube production, coding and javascript. If an in-person class must quarantine, that class may be moved to an online format.

A student in the BVSD Lifelong Learning Program works on an art project. Photo courtesy of BVSD Lifelong Learning Program.

Lifelong learning camps are taught by people from local businesses and franchises. The in-person classes include horseback riding, cooking, garden-to-table, LEGO, chess, origami, fencing, filmmaking, STEM programming, dance, drama, theater, leadership/speaking skills, hula hoop and hip-hop classes—to name a few. The in-person classes will be taught mostly outside with access to indoor bathrooms and some use of indoor gyms.

Lauridsen can tell that parents in the district are becoming more comfortable with in-person learning. One parent told her that she signed up her child for ten summer camps.

“We wanted to make sure we supported families,” Williams said. “It’s the no-risk summer.”

The “no-risk” summer is kind of a joke. The no-risk involves an abundance of caution with COVID protocols and a flexible return policy if families have to withdraw from camps. They were playing around with calling it the “no worry summer.”

“I can’t tell you not to worry, but I can tell you you have less risk,” Lauridsen said.

BVSD is also focusing on academics through their summer learning program.

“We don’t call it summer school,” Williams said. “It’s more than that.”

“Our preteens, they’re not interested in doing this at home,” Palazzari said. “They are not interested in having yet another Zoom education experience. They’re in Zoom all day for school. This is an opportunity to be sort of social. At least you’re in the room with other kids.”

The program has been expanded to accommodate for any discrepancies in learning that were brought on by the pandemic. Now nine sites host summer learning programs focused on programming, literacy and math in the morning and childcare in the afternoon. High school students can attend free credit recovery online courses.

“We are doing things to support kids who struggled this year academically, and we’re also doing things to enrich their lives,” Williams said. Children attending in-person summer programming must bring individual lunches, water bottles and sunscreen, unlike other years when supplies and food were communal.

With a year under their belt navigating COVID, the district feels like they have a “tight” COVID-19 plan. “It’s not a good thing we’ve been in COVID a year, but we’ve had a year now to work through systems and kinks,” Williams said. “And I feel like we have some really strong protocols in place.”

Aside from minimizing the spread of the pandemic, their main goal is to bring back joy.

“My hope is, even for my own kids, is we get them into these summer camps and they remember the joy that over the last year that I think all of us have kind of missed,” Williams said. “It’s time to bring back joy. School is essential and enrichment programs make everybody’s lives a little better. They bring joy.”

The pandemic has affected us all on different levels. With online learning and the potential strain put on mental health, school-aged children face unique barriers. Summer may be a time for children to reclaim the joy that we remember from when we were kids, when getting sunburnt was our biggest worry, which brings simplicity and happiness, especially for our youngest members of society who’ve navigated this new world with grace.

“Our kids have had so much screen time with being online and for the classroom as well,” Lauridsen said. “They can put the computer away, get outside, reconnect to just being a kid again. They can get their hands dirty in the garden and play with horses, just be kids.” 

For more information on summer camps in Boulder County, check out the annual Yellow Scene Camp Directory – Colorado’s Largest!

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