Mikailah DeCoteau, 7, has the summer off from school, but her mom, AJ, needs to work. The plan was for Mikailah to attend a summer camp run in South Philadelphia by the nonprofit Sunrise of Philadelphia.
But Mikailah is one of thousands of children who won’t get that chance because of COVID-19 — and because the Philadelphia School District decided not to reopen its buildings for such summer programs, as it had for years.
The DeCoteaus have a workaround, because AJ DeCoteau’s mother visited Philadelphia this winter from their native Trinidad and Tobago, then got stuck in the city when the Caribbean nation shut its borders because of the coronavirus. Mikailah’s grandmother can watch her for now, supervising the little girl while she logs on for a virtual camp run by Sunrise beginning Monday.
But “without my mother, I don’t know what we’d do,” said DeCoteau, who is here working on her doctorate in education. “I don’t know how people make it work.”
The city’s Office of Children and Families, which funds Sunrise and other Out of School Time providers, as they are known, said that 67 elementary and middle school camps typically operate out of district buildings each summer, but won’t this year, affecting 3,486 children. Many have shifted to online operations, an option the providers acknowledge does not work for many families.
“Our constantly changing environment due to COVID-19 has meant that our OST network had to be innovative and creative about how programming happens this summer!” OCF spokesperson Heather Keafer said in a statement.
Providers were offered alternate, in-person locations for summer camps, Keafer said, but many declined them. (The providers said the costs associated with many substitute locations were prohibitive.)
Philadelphia Department of Recreation programs, which are run separately, also have diminished summer camp capacity. Usually, up to 10,000 children are enrolled across the city; this year, the programs are capped at 4,000 children to accommodate coronavirus concerns.
OCF pays camp providers per student; it offered a lower per-child payment for virtual options, but providers have been told they will only be funded for in-person programming in the fall.
Monica Lewis, district spokesperson, noted that Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all school buildings closed in March. (Subsequent state guidance allowed for in-person activities in buildings beginning Wednesday, but the district has limited its summer school activities, offering them online only.) The shutdown impacts not only camps, but sports, plays, concerts, and even fundraisers, Lewis said.
“We understand that this may not provide the opportunity for summer programming that most are accustomed to, but we must adhere to guidelines that will help keep all Philadelphians as safe as possible as the COVID-19 public health matter evolves,” Lewis said in a statement.
Advocates say the district should have made provisions to open a limited number of buildings for city kids to have safe and structured summers. They say talks were underway at points about what such a reopening for camps would have looked like, but that there wasn’t enough pressure or urgency from high-level leadership.
“This is about will, not resources,” said Donna Cooper, executive director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “The fact that we’re going to have fewer options, not more, for kids this summer is unacceptable.”
Miles Wilson, executive director of Education Works, a nonprofit that typically serves 800 children a summer in West, North, and South Philadelphia, said the organization has pivoted to a virtual camp focusing on science, technology, engineering and math concepts.
But even a robust online program is a loss for families, Wilson said. Before the district gave its final “no,” he had hoped he could offer families a hybrid model, with children attending face-to-face camp some days and logging on remotely other days, to allow for social distancing. He and other providers tried to get creative, proposing using a few school “super sites,” with perhaps just outdoor access and limited indoor space for emergencies.
The conversation was a nonstarter, he said.
“This is the population that doesn’t have the flexibility of calling out, nor do they have the flexibility of working remotely,” said Wilson. “And it’s important that kids get these in-person, educational experiences.”
Ben Cooper, director of program quality with Sunrise of Philadelphia, which last summer enrolled about 500 children in camps run inside city schools, said the uncertainty around whether in-person camp would open hampered the organization’s planning. It has been able to regroup around a virtual-only experience, he said, but some families said it wouldn’t work for them.
“We know and the sector knows that families do need to get back to work, and quality child care is a part of that,” Cooper said. “A virtual camp is not going to cut it for a second grader.”
Sunrise, Education Works, and five other providers now worry about the fall, when child-care needs will likely grow, as hybrid in-person and online models could mean more parents than ever are scrambling for care. The School District is expected to release its plans for the fall later this month.
Calling themselves the “Philadelphia Out of School Time Coalition,” they said in an open letter that it understands the School District is now considering a plan that would shut them out entirely come fall, when they typically provide after-school services.
Without the use of district schools, costs would soar and fewer kids could be served. The coalition asked for more city coordination and, from the district, a seat at the table as decisions for the fall are made “to ensure that there are sufficient spaces for youth, support for working families, and to preserve a dedicated workforce.”