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You Can Still Plan for Summer Camp In the Age of the Coronavirus

Jessica Sillers  |  March 26, 2020

Preparing for summer camp in the midst of worrying headlines and changing guidelines is tough. Here's how to approach uncertainty.

Coronavirus concerns make planning for, well, almost anything in 2020, especially uncertain. The lack of knowing when we’ll reach a new “normal” — and what it might look like — has left many parents anxious about planning what to do with their kids this summer. Is summer camp even in the cards?

It seems that most camps are proceeding as if they will be running programs as planned. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created a rapidly-changing situation, many camps are filling summer sessions, following simple measures like stocking up on hand sanitizer or asking campers to wait two weeks to attend if they’ve traveled overseas. 

Prepare for several outcomes to feel ready for whatever happens in the coming months.

If the CDC or other health organizations recommend differently in coming months, this may change. But preparing for several outcomes may help you feel more ready to take on coming months, no matter what happens.

You and Your Child’s Comfort Level Come First

“My whole approach changed,” says Elizabeth, a mom in a parenting circle I belong to. She hasn’t enrolled her kids anywhere, unlike previous years. “If I do book camps, I think they won’t be overnight camps this summer … I do think my boys will want to do camp after missing so much school.”

Balancing health and the need for socialization is likely to be a challenging question for lots of parents. Your best start is to follow updates from the CDC and WHO to evaluate how to limit disease spread.

The best decision for families is the one that makes them feel most comfortable. To minimize the financial hit if your plans change, read refund policies closely, because some camps are currently still imposing cancellation fees.

Ways to Save on Summer Camp

From a parent’s perspective, summer camp is a child care lifeline. It’s also a major expense. Families spend $1,000 per child on average, and roughly 20% of families spend over double that. 

There are lots of ways to trim costs and get a discounted rate. Some ideas:

Enroll early: Early birds can often snag a lower rate. Camps are eager to keep healthy cash flow and fill camp sessions. Discounted rates are a good way for them to incentivize customers. Although most camps start early enrollment in the middle of winter or in early spring, it’s worthwhile to call your favorite camps directly to ask about their plans and discounts in this uncertain time. Even if there isn’t a posted discount, you might be able to negotiate one if you’re willing to enroll now.

Buy in bulk: Take a cue from your Costco membership — sometimes buying more saves money! For camps, this means signing up for multiple sessions at the same camp, or taking advantage of a sibling discount.

Not only can bundling camp sessions save money, but it also streamlines your routine. Dropping off multiple kids at different day camps can be hectic and time-consuming. (You don’t want to drive your kid to last week’s camp in a pre-coffee fog!) Going all in on one or two camps can mean a simpler, easier, and cheaper summer.

Ask for a ‘campership’: Look into financial aid and scholarship options for camp, as many parents in Facebook groups I follow. Rhiannon G., a mom in North Carolina, says her local Parks and Rec department and YMCA offer aid. Some camps, like the GirlsRockNC her daughter attends, offer tuition options on a sliding scale for income. Financial assistance is more common than you might think: More than 90% of camps report offering financial aid, and two out of three camps give more than $10,000 in camp scholarships each year.

Check Groupon: Some camps offer heavily discounted sessions on sites like Groupon. Browsing camp Groupons where I live in the D.C. Metro area turned up results ranging from 20% to 67% off.

Shop for membership deals: Are you a member of a zoo or museum in your area? These organizations may run summer programs, and members usually get a discount. Fees vary, but this may be a good way to get an insider rate at a place you already know your kids love.

Claim camp tax credit: Okay, it’s not officially a camp credit. But the Child and Dependent Care Credit applies to up to $6,000 of expenses you paid to care for a child under 13 so you could work. (Some other eligible dependents qualify you, as well.) You’ll complete a form with information about your camp expenses, income, and other tax information to calculate the credit you can claim.

Stagger your work schedule to save on after-camp care: If your work schedule allows, stagger hours with your partner so one of you is free for either drop-off or pick-up. If you work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and your partner works 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., you can avoid paying for extra before- and after-camp care and still have evenings open to relax as a family. Single parents may be able to work out a similar arrangement by carpooling with a friend. You will probably need to add each other as authorized adults to pick up each other’s child, so ask around early.

Cheap or Free Summer Camps

Summer camp doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. There are affordable summer camps in communities all over. Find hidden gems near you by searching “(your city) summer camps” with keywords like “free,” “affordable,” or “sliding scale.” You can also look for local options by searching for “playground camp,” “coding camp,” or “free arts program.” Some examples:

  • Summer Playgrounds and Xtreme Teen Summer Sites, Prince George’s County, MD: $60 for up to 7 weeks of supervised playground care.
  • APD Youth Summer Camp, Austin, TX: Free, 4-week summer camp for qualified 4th-graders.
  • LA Kids, City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks: Free arts and culture programs for children ages 5-17.
  • Camp Helen Brachman, COA Youth & Family Centers, Milwaukee, WI: Sliding scale camp with additional scholarships available.
  • Fresh Air Fund, for New York City residents who meet income requirements: Free, nature-based camp for boys and girls.
  • Camps at local churches and houses of worship: Many churches offer a Vacation Bible School, or VBS, program for elementary school kids. Synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship may also offer affordable or free summer programs. Same with local parks and recreation organizations. 

Other organizations offer camps in locations across the country. 

  • Girls Who Code, various U.S. locations: A free, 7-week computer science immersion program for rising junior and senior high school girls who meet the program requirements.
  • YMCA camps, various locations in the U.S.: Prices vary, but typically there are discounts for members, as well as financial aid options.

It may be difficult right now to imagine anything like a “normal” summer with coronavirus concerns all around. But when we come out the other side of this pandemic, you may be prepared for your kids to enjoy camp with friends without putting too much of a burden on your bottom line.

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