Utah summer camps will be open this year, but with changes

Parents may need back-up options, though, since spaces are limited due to COVID-19.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A child looks at a praying mantis created out of LEGO® brick pieces at an exhibition at Red Butte Garden in 2018. Red Butte Garden is holding a modified version of its summer camp this year after not being able to host the program last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It might not look like a “normal” summer — with fewer kids and extra social distancing — but Utah providers say they expect more programs to be available this year for children after schools let out.

This time last year, there were too many uncertainties during the COVID-19 pandemic for Red Butte Garden to host its annual camp. But now, the staff is preparing to welcome back a limited number of campers in June.

“The demand is extremely high,” said Eddy Dawson, director of programs at the Salt Lake City botanical garden and arboretum. Most of their spots filled up within 45 minutes of going on sale earlier this month.

“Anyone with kids is looking to find out what they’re going to do this summer,” he said.

Dawson would know. He’s still figuring out what his own children, who are in fifth and eighth grades, will do after school ends.

“It has definitely been a wild year,” said Ben Trentelman, director of operations at Utah Afterschool Network.

During a typical summer, the Utah Afterschool Network works with roughly 150 programs that serve families throughout the state. As of late March, “we have about 30” that Trentelman said they know will definitely be running this summer, and they are hopeful that number will increase in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Utah’s child care facilities are seeing more kids coming back, according to Rebecca Banner, director of the state’s office of child care. From April 2020 to February, the number of children attending a child care center or family child care program has increased from 9,772 to 28,924.

“It’s steadily increased each month with children coming back into child care programs ... as the needs changed during the pandemic,” Banner said.

And there’s still room for more families to find care for their children, she said, with attendance sitting around 74% for centers and 82% for family programs as of February.

“There are safe places for parents to take their kids ... that meet their individual family needs,” she said.

Where to find child care and summer programs

Visit careaboutchildcare.utah.gov to find openings throughout the state. Use the “nontraditional care” filter to find summer programs.

Utah After School Network has an interactive map of summer programs across Utah at utahafterschool.org/find-an-afterschool-program.

Changes at camp

Similar to Red Butte Garden, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake also is seeing a rise in parents calling about summer and fall programs, said Machelle Lake, senior development officer, in an email.

To keep everyone healthy, Lake said, they “adopted strict safety protocols,” including temperature checks, mask wearing, reduced group sizes and lots of hand washing and sanitizing. The clubs also have designated areas for children to self-isolate if they start showing signs of COVID-19, as well as protocols for closing and sanitizing if anyone tests positive.

“Last year we saw a number of (programs) that operated exclusively online. And I think that this year we’ll see more hybrid models,” Trentelman said.

In addition to Club U, which provides an in-person, “traditional summer camp experience” for kids ages 5 to 11, the University of Utah is also offering 150 online camps for ages 6 to 18, according to Nate Friedman, associate dean of online and continuing education. Classes range from drawing and improv to video game design and robotics, he said in an email.

Red Butte Garden also decided to offer an at-home option this year, Dawson said, to give parents who “maybe aren’t feeling comfortable sending their kids to camp something ... to keep their kids busy at home while they’re working,” Dawson said. Twice a month, people can purchase and pick up “garden adventure kits,” with activities such as building terrariums and planting a salsa garden, he said.

It’s been a tricky summer to prepare for, “with the parameters constantly changing” around COVID-19, according to Dawson. Usually, his staff finishes planning by November or December the year before.

“Obviously in November, we did not know what the pandemic would look like in June. In fact, we still don’t know what it will look like in June,” Dawson said.

The garden typically hosts about 800 campers across 50 camps. This year, though, they’re planning for 224 campers for 14 camps, and it’s limited to first through fourth graders, he said. They also don’t have the volunteers that “we rely so heavily on,” like the seventh and eighth graders who have aged out of the summer camp that come back to help, according to Dawson.

Even though it’s not what they’re used to, Dawson said, “we’ve done the best we can” to provide a fun, safe, top-notch experience for kids.

“I think learning recovery is going to be paramount this summer, no matter what situation your kid is in,” added Kelly Riding, Utah Afterschool Network’s executive director.

After being cooped up inside a lot over the last year, kids will be outside more and “they need to play” this summer, Riding said. It’s important to help them work again on their social and emotional learning skills, she said, in addition to topics like math and reading.

‘We’re in this together’

Erin Kleven doesn’t know yet what her three children, who are 10, 8 and 6, will do this summer. They only recently returned to in-person learning, so the Salt Lake City mother said she hasn’t had time to think past the school year yet.

It’s been nice, though, to get them back to school and after-school programs, Kleven said. And like many kids their age, her children are excited for summer.

“They’re normal kids that are really excited to do normal things,” she said.

Even with her plans “still up in the air,” Kleven said she appreciates all the work that providers and educators have done over the past year to stay open and keep serving kids. “We’re in this together,” she said.

As summer approaches, people should be flexible and have a couple of options ready, Trentelman said, since they may not be able to rely on their “typical fallback.” There are also “a lot of different summer programs that are one to two weeks long,” which families could patch together to cover the months away from school, he said.

This may be “hard to gauge,” but Trentelman also encouraged families to be conscious “that we still have some inequity around who has to go to work in person and who is needing to work at home right now.”

Take Trentelman, for instance. He’s currently working from home and is thankful that he can get his kids into a summer program. But he said he’s also aware that because he can work remotely, “I have the flexibility for my kids to be here if it’s absolutely necessary.”

“If there is something that is in high demand, maybe think about other resources that you can use … to make sure that there’s still capacity for the kids that most need it,” he said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.