Ypsi-area summer camps retool offerings in response to COVID-19

Directors of Ypsilanti-area summer camps have choices to make during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic: cancel, go virtual, or host smaller in-person camps with safety precautions.


The staff at Ypsi's Parkridge Community Center recently decided they will offer summer programming virtually, though Community Development Manager Anthony Williamson says staff aren't sure what that will look like yet. He notes that the population served by Parkridge summer programs is already marginalized, and summer programming helps them retain academic gains from the previous school year, so it's important that staff provide some sort of "vigorous virtual camp."


The Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission has already canceled all of its summer playground camps for 2020, including those held in Ypsi and Ypsi Township.


Karen Lewis, director of the county's summer playground program, says the commissioners considered hosting a smaller summer camp with social distancing protocols but decided "it was not in the best interest of the safety and health of the children."


"We started listing the pros and cons, and there started to be more cons than pros because there are so many unknowns," Lewis says.


Instead, the county is working on providing free books and box lunches for Ypsi-area children to fill some of the needs that free summer camps typically meet.


The parks and recreation commissioners also considered pivoting to some sort of virtual programming, but it didn't seem like the right fit for the demographic served by the county's summer camp program, which provides a form of childcare for many of the families who participate.


"We discussed what this population needed, and they don't need virtual classes," Lewis says. "If their parents are going back to work, what they need is adult supervision."


The camps' role as child care providers is one reason Ann Arbor YMCA staff are hoping to still host in-person summer camps in 2020, with smaller groups and social distancing protocols.


Toni Kayumi, Ann Arbor YMCA president and CEO, says hosting camps this year will be a challenge since the Y will have to be careful to follow national, state, and local safety and health guidance.


"We're still hoping to be able to run in-person day camp in smaller numbers, because the space requirements for six-foot distancing will mean we can serve fewer campers in the same amount of space," she says. "But we know it's a high priority for working parents to have a safe and enriching place for students to go so they can be back on the job."


She says that unless the Washtenaw County Health Department, CDC, or state guidance forbid them from having summer camps, YMCA staff tentatively plan to host a summer day camp for 5- to 12-year-olds at the Ypsilanti Township Community Center from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each weekday from July 6 to Aug. 21. Kayumi believes they can safely host about 12 to 16 children per week at the community center.


She says there'll be "fewer spaces, less places we can go," and fewer types of camps while maintaining social distancing. Other protocols will include daily temperature checks for staff and campers; not offering shared supplies, so that multiple children won't be touching the same crayons, for instance; and possibly having campers wear masks.


"We want them to have new experiences and develop friendships, which is key if kids are isolated … and haven't been able to play with other kids in person," she says.


Though the camps might not be able to offer certain sports and group activities, they can still offer arts and crafts, science projects, team building, nutritional education, and silent reading time.


The Y is also working on offering virtual programming for older teens and hosting Y on the Fly check-ins at various neighborhood centers, parks, and churches. The Y on the Fly program brings sports equipment and activity coaches to children in underserved neighborhoods. Y staff are also working on activity kits for children who can't attend an in-person camp.


"We know that families might be tired of doing virtual stuff for months, so we created a 'camp in a box' program to allow kids to have enriching, theme-based things to do," Kayumi says. Youth can do most of the activities with little or no adult supervision.


Kayumi and her staff are waiting to see what kind of official guidance will shape this year's programming, and making their best guesses in the meantime.


"We're trying to keep the spirit of day camp alive, while also following all safety and health protocols at a much higher level of restriction than in years past," Kayumi says.


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Ypsilanti YMCA Summer Day Camp photos courtesy of Ann Arbor YMCA. Summer playground program photos courtesy of Washtenaw County.