School’s out: Now what? Parents plan for different approach to summer

May 21, 2020

By John Hult, for SiouxFalls.Business 

The COVID-19 pandemic turned parents into home-school teachers in mid-March, adding a layer of stress for families working from home, working essential jobs or working through unemployment claims after a job loss.

As virtual learning ends and businesses begin to reopen and rehire, those parents face a new challenge — deciding what to do with their children in a summer that’s looking anything but typical.

Child care centers are operating and have openings for the most part. But will parents feel comfortable sending the children back? If they do, will they want to, knowing that swimming, field trips and outside visitors will be severely restricted? 

Camps, workshops and recreation groups are sketching out plans for the season, but there’s plenty of uncertainty there as well. Shorter camps and smaller sessions are likely, and the possibility of a resurgence or cluster of COVID-19 cases will loom large.

Andrea Boerigter hasn’t made every summer decision for her 5- and 6-year-old sons yet, but she already has decided to opt for a nanny over a child care center.

“Our kids have always gone to Sioux Falls Lutheran day care, and it’s amazing there,” said Boerigter, who owns Bloom, a preschool therapy group, and works closely with several child care centers. “But they’re not going to get to go to the pool, they won’t go on the field trips. Those are the things school-age children really look forward to.”

There’s also the question of safety to consider, Boerigter said.

“A lot of my friends are calling me and asking ‘what are we going to do?’ A lot of them don’t want to send their kids to day care,” she said. “We’re all just waiting for what tomorrow brings, and tomorrow we’ll be waiting for what the next day will bring.”

Child care center enrollment numbers suggest that Boerigter’s assessment isn’t far off.

EmBe’s numbers dropped by more than half when it reopened its two centers after a two-week pause for deep cleaning and pandemic-related protocol updates in March. Parents are returning slowly, but its child care rooms — where kids now stay nearly all day, even through lunch and physical education — are still well below capacity.

“We saw a huge drop-off in demand,” said Jennifer Hoesing, EmBe’s chief development officer. 

Like many other centers, EmBe has no-contact drop-off, as well as daily temperature checks for kids and symptom questionnaires for parents. Teachers no longer see parents, classes no longer intermingle in the gym or on the playground at the end of the day, and outside activity leaders no longer stop by.

The center is taking a cautious approach to weekly activities as the summer begins, Hoesing said. The biweekly trips to the city pool won’t take place this year, but children in EmBe’s downtown location will swim once a week at the on-site pool. Walks and field trips won’t take place as often when they resume in June, and buses will be cleaned between trips where transportation is needed.

“We are planning some off-site activities, but this is not going to look like a normal summer,” she said. 

Even so, EmBe has slots available for parents who need to return to work. It has been difficult to maintain staffing without income rolling in, she said, but doing so has kept the center ready to serve the community.

“For some of our parents, it’s made it possible for them to do their jobs,” she said.

The Sioux Falls School District’s Kids Inc. child care will kick off its summer program June 1, with around 75 percent of its typical enrollment at its four locations: Eugene Field, Discovery, JFK and Cleveland elementary schools. Children will be sorted by age and stay in classrooms between alternating visits to the playground.

Activities such as National Parks Service virtual tours or online workshops will replace some of the usual outings, according to program coordinator Jodi Miller, and decisions on off-site activities will be handled on a week-by-week basis.

Miller acknowledges that the summer won’t be quite as active as usual, but she sees the lower numbers more as a measure of parent comfort than worries about boredom.

“With the drops, I really think it was just about (parents) being comfortable having them around that many more kids,” Miller said. 

Unlike EmBe, Kids Inc. will not take new enrollments as the months pass. That’s largely a staffing-related decision, as the program aims to keep rooms at a CDC-recommended 10-to-1 child-teacher ratio. 

Outside of child care centers, the businesses and organizations that serve as hubs of summer activity for the kids who stay at home also are wrestling with protocols and plans in hopes of drawing back families and easing the burden. 

The Great Plains Zoo’s outdoor areas reopened Wednesday, with limited entry, hand sanitizer stations and guidelines for social distancing. Wild Water West announced its reopening with additional safety measures last week as well.

GreatLIFE Golf & Fitness has announced that fitness and golf camps for kids age 5 through 18 will go on, with accommodations for extra spacing and sanitizing.

Other programs are in wait-and-see mode, cautiously making plans. The Sioux Empire Baseball Association is planning for a season start June 1 but awaits a May 29 decision from the Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Department on use of city facilities. 

Playgrounds are open at city parks, but shelters and restrooms remain closed. The city announced this week that public pools will remain closed for the season. Sioux Falls recreation program coordinator Eric Saathoff said decisions on activities and events such as Storyland Children’s Theatre and community center classes will be based on data.

“We’re still examining the data as it comes in,” Saathoff said. “It’s continuing to evolve. We don’t have any firm answers yet, but we hope to have an announcement soon.”

The YMCA Leif Ericson camp program is holding off for guidance from the American Camping Association, director Mike Murphy said, and anticipates a camp season with shortened sessions.

Camp protocols are especially tricky, Murphy said. Horseback riding, kayaking, hiking, arts and crafts or archery each call for different measures.

“Being a summer camp with the number of kids we have and the kinds of programs we offer, there’s unfortunately not a lot of other local programs to compare ourselves to,” Murphy said. “It’s not just a playground with a set of swings. There’s a lot to consider.”

The Washington Pavilion reopened Leonardo’s Cafe and its box office this week. Its exhibits and summer workshops will resume June 1, with additional safety measures in place, executive director Darren Smith said. 

“It’s all about what people feel comfortable with,” Smith said. “You have to have people come in and see the cleaning going on. You’ve got to have the hand sanitizer stations. It doesn’t need to look like a Level 4 biohazard, but parents have to feel confident that you’re going to take care of their kids.”

As many as 3,000 children usually move through the camps in June, July and early August, but the Pavilion is projecting numbers at one-third of that level. Staff will use lobbies and performance areas to spread out students this year, Smith said.

Low enrollment numbers won’t translate to canceled workshops as they might in a typical season, a change Smith sees as important for the families who rely on the activities as a welcome respite from long days at home.

“Normally, we’d pull the plug on classes (with lower numbers), but you’ll probably see those camps going on this summer.”

That’s welcome news for Kelley Lund, a mother of three who takes her children to Pavilion camps on a weekly basis in a typical summer. But that doesn’t mean her three children will be attending.

Lund’s 8-year-old daughter is at high risk because of asthma and prior heart conditions.

“We’ve had to postpone all her activities — all her dance recitals, all the Pavilion activities — it’s all on hold,” said Lund, whose family is planning camping trips instead. “It’s one thing if we’re watching our children, but to leave them with someone else, I don’t know that I would be comfortable with that.”

The slowdown has been rough for her 5-year-old, Aiden. Her son, like her other children, looks forward to the Pavilion camps. He’s also especially taken by Soccer Sprouts, which his mother said has been a positive influence for her overactive youngster.

“It’s a structured environment, but it’s still very free and fun,” she said. “You don’t have to know anything about soccer, and you can still go in and have a great time.”

The program’s owner, Becky Maynard-Janssen — “Coach Becky” to the parents and children — last saw Aiden Lund in the first week of March, after which the pandemic shut down her typically busy spring season. The program serves 600 children through nightly sessions or child care center visits in a normal spring.

Maynard-Janssen asked her part-time lead coaches and assistants to hang tight and offered vouchers to around 400 families whose children missed out in March. 

A new season for July and August is planned at this point, and Maynard-Janssen is watching other youth sports organizations closely to see if a few weeks of June “shake the dust off” sessions would be welcome. 

“We’re taking a look to see how families are reacting and transitioning,” she said. “If every single (Little League) team is missing half its kids because parents don’t want to bring them out, it doesn’t make sense to do anything in June.”

She does get the sense, however, that there is pent-up demand. Child care centers are slowly adding children as the weeks pass, and she has started fielding more inquiries from parents. 

“I think over the next three to four weeks we’re going to see people coming out of the woodwork to get back to some kind of normalcy,” she said. 

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School’s out: Now what? Parents plan for different approach to summer

Parents wrapping up their dual role as teachers now face a new quandary: how to care for the kids and keep them safe this summer. From child care centers to camps, we checked in on what options are emerging.

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