May 16—Janice Stratton is excited her two youngest kids can participate in organized activities again this summer. She signed 9-year-old Alisha up for an overnight horse camp and 6-year-old Christopher is enrolled in gymnastics and soccer camps.
She said this is a nice change from last summer when most activities were canceled because of the pandemic.
"They need that. They need to get out and see the world," she said.
A lot more will be going on this summer for kids compared to last year.
Most local summer camps and day programs are resuming operations, providing youth with academic support, development, art and sports while they aren't in school. Canceled camps and activities meant taking away opportunities for kids to develop social and emotional skills and made it more challenging to find ways to keep kids active.
While local camps have reported a rise in interest this summer, some parents are hesitant about enrolling kids in programs again because of the pandemic.
Stratton runs the local Connecting Kids program, which provides financial support for enrollment in activities such as day camps and swimming lessons. She has seen an increase in families reaching out this year wanting to enroll their children. Local camps also have reported a rise in interest from families this year, but many are operating at reduced capacity because of distancing guidelines.
Stratton said additional families also may be reaching out to Connecting Kids because more people are needing financial assistance during the pandemic. Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are eligible. In a typical year, the program supports about 400 kids, but Stratton said they will likely help more this year because of higher demand.
Opportunities for local youth have changed a lot during the pandemic, but the return of summer camps and an easing up of restrictions are giving kids more chances to engage in activities than last year.
After-school programs for the most part have been operating, although they've adapted to follow state and federal guidelines and at reduced capacity. Some had to temporarily halt operations last spring and others had to transition to provide support to kids doing distance learning.
Tracy Andrade has enrolled her five kids in STEM camps, Vacation Bible School and other activities this summer. It will allow her to work more. She is a photographer and hasn't been able to do many shoots this year because her kids have been home.
She said it was nice being home and bonding with her kids last summer, but it'll be good for them to have more things to do.
"It feels like we might have a normal summer and school year again," Andrade said.
Camp Patterson at Lake Washington is one of the camps that will be back up and running after closing operations in 2020.
The camp is operated by the local Kiwanis but organizations such as the YMCA use the facility to host camps.
The facility is booked up for the summer already, and Kiwanis is working to stay open later in the season so other groups can use the space.
"Our mission is to get as many kids out here as possible," said Shannon Sinning, co-chair of the Camp Patterson Committee.
The organizations and Kiwanis have been working to create guidelines for the summer. There will be fewer kids at the camp and kids will be kept in smaller groups. An outdoor handwashing station was built to keep people from crowding the bathroom sinks.
Dan Richmond, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Utah, studies the long-term outcomes of kids attending summer camps. He said camps are beneficial because kids learn to be independent and can explore new interests.
Richmond said the social benefits of camp are really important because kids learn to interact with adults and kids outside their usual community.
While many families are excited for children to have these opportunities again, he said that preliminary survey results from his work show that a significant number of families are hesitant about sending their kids to camp again so soon and some worry that social distancing requirements and other guidelines will deter from the camp experience.
Even though many programs shut down, some continued providing support to families throughout the pandemic.
Last March ACES, an after-school program run by Mankato Area Public Schools, adapted to provide free emergency care for tier one families, which included those that work in health care, law enforcement, first responders, and food and agriculture. The Minnesota Department of Education highly encouraged school districts, summer and child care programs to plan options that prioritize children whose parents were in those professions because they continued to work in person last spring.
Other after-school programs temporarily shut down in-person operations and provided virtual activities for kids instead. The YMCA had to pause its after-school program when the facility closed last spring. Dustin Slaughter, youth activities director, would read books to kids through video. Staff also did remote craft projects.
The YMCA and ACES provided critical child support to families who have been working in person during the past year. When schools transitioned back to fully remote learning last fall, after-school programs expanded to provide full-day service. Staff played more of a role in helping kids navigate online classrooms and work on coursework. Teachers and paraprofessionals worked with the programs to ensure kids' needs were being met.
Sam Schirmers, ACES program coordinator, said program staff had to think differently about what they offer and provide more academic resources.
The YMCA had students studying early education at Gustavus Adolphus College come help students with distance learning.
Schirmers said the number of students in the ACES program fluctuated throughout the year, depending on what model schools are in.
ACES had to reduce how many students they can support this year because of recommended guidelines. ACES expanded into other areas of the building to keep smaller pods of kids separated and allow for social distancing. The after-school program can provide services to about half the number of kids they used to because of limited space and staff.
The YMCA also had to reduce how many kids could be in the after-school program. Office partitions were set up in a gym at the YMCA to create areas where kids could be separated into groups. The spaces look similar to a classroom, with desks for kids to work at.
"Family and staff have been great about rolling with the punches as we go," Schirmers said.
Staff members are planning for the summer program now and expanding pod sizes so they can serve more kids. She said there are significantly more families interested in the program this summer, with 150 more applications compared to last year when more parents were working remotely and ACES was operating at smaller capacity.
"I think people are needing that full-time care," Schirmers said. "A lot more families are getting to the point where they feel more comfortable with resuming that normalcy.
"There's been lots of shifts in the past year," she said. "I'm excited and grateful for the opportunity to remain open to serve families who need child care."