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Allison Perez, 11, and on the cusp of sixth grade in the Elmsford Union Free School District in New York, had been working all morning to build a rocket she would launch as soon as it was fit to fly.

After more than a year of interrupted learning, she was eager to see her project through. She shot the colorful 12-inch missile into the air with abandon on the last day of summer camp. “Whoa!” she said through her mask as the rocket soared overhead before crashing to the pavement. After adjusting her glasses and retrieving her projectile, she lined up behind her peers, anxious to try again.

Before the program started, Allison worried it would feel too much like school. A brand-new joint venture between the district, located some 20 miles north of Manhattan, and a local educational enrichment organization, it promised a far more academic focus than a typical summer camp. But after learning from home for nearly the entire school year — Allison attended class for only two weeks at the end of last semester — she knew she would benefit from the experience. 

“After my mom told me all we are learning and that it would help me in sixth grade, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,” she said. “If I am already prepared, the grade will be easier for me.”

summer camp
Summer camps and day camps were hit hard by the pandemic and shutdown in 2020. When they reopened this year, some focused on helping kids catch up academically and emotionally after a year spent online. In addition to such traditional activities as sports, canoeing and arts and crafts, many included hands-on projects that improve kids understanding of science, math and language. Credit: Lillian Mongeau for the Hechinger Report

For many children who descended on the nation’s public parks and schools this summer, camp was their first taste of normalcy in well more than a year. Educators, parents and camp directors embraced the experience as a way to support student mental health as children isolated by the pandemic re-entered the outside world, in some cases for the first time since schools were shuttered.

And, while some camps stayed true to their core mission of outdoor fun, focusing on sports, crafts and teambuilding exercises, others, like the one Allison attended, infused math, science, literacy and other core subjects into hands-on, project-based programs meant to help spark kids’ enthusiasm for learning.

Summer camps, many of which remain financially fragile after last year’s closures, could see an influx of cash: The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund earmarked $1.2 billion specifically for evidence-based summer enrichment.

Federal guidelines also required school districts to use at least $21 billion in aid to fund initiatives meant to blunt the pandemic’s impact on learning. These can include summer programs, which White House officials say are key to addressing lost instructional and extracurricular time.

Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said quality summer programming, the type that often emerges from partnerships between schools and community groups, will go far to re-engage students.

“That really helps them get geared up for the new school year,” he said during a recent press briefing on the topic.

Related: Summer school programs race to help students most in danger of falling behind

While some camps were shuttered for lack of staff, or because of Covid outbreaks, the federal money has allowed schools and camps across the nation to open their doors to a wider swath of children. Before the pandemic, Elmsford’s summer program was offered only to students who needed reading intervention or who were just beginning to learn English.

Concerns about learning loss and a desire for a seamless return to in-person instruction in the fall prompted school officials to create an entirely new program, meant to help any child who wished to participate: 80 attended this summer.

The district, which serves nearly 1,000 students across three campuses, partnered with a long-established enrichment group called Curious-on-Hudson to incorporate math and literacy into engaging, hands-on learning projects for elementary-aged participants.

“You can’t make up for an entire year in four weeks, but you can get them excited for what’s to come.”

Elizabeth McQuaid, Curious-on-Hudson

The academics were subtle by design: The youngest kids — the program was open to children from kindergarten through fifth grade — learned about lift and drag by making kites. They wrote about their experience and drew pictures of their creations, activities that tied in other aspects of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM).

Older students performed a number of design challenges by building parachutes, windmills, rockets, model space shuttles and simple roller coasters.

Many of the projects called for running and jumping, giving children a chance to burn energy through physical activity.

The program, which operated on school grounds, paired the district’s classroom teachers with Curious-on-Hudson staff, many of whom also have extensive experience in education. The union proved fruitful: Mary Ann Maric, a special education teacher in the district who works with first graders, said the alliance gave her new tools and ideas with which to engage students. 

summer camp
Zenaya Moncada, 10, and her brother, Marckez Moncada, 11, also of the Elmsford Union Free School District, get ready to launch their own rockets on the last day of summer camp. Both were sad to see the program come to an end. Credit: Jo Napolitano for The Hechinger Report

“It catches everything an early childhood learner needs,” she said after conducting a game in which children tossed oversized dice to solve simple math problems before sprinting across the classroom to pin their answers on a black board.

Elmsford schools received some $1.1 million in Covid-related federal funding, with roughly $220,000 earmarked for summer programs. School superintendent Marc Baiocco said the district wanted to build students’ skills ahead of the new school year by offering more than the local municipal summer camp, which focused largely on games, crafts and field trips.

“The other thing we wanted to make certain of was that students were having fun,” he said. “The two were equally important.”

It’s not unusual to link camping and schools. The first camp directors in the late 1800s were teachers, according to Tom Rosenberg, president of the American Camp Association. That bond has only grown stronger during the shutdowns as camps have been invited to host myriad programs meant to supplement in-school learning, he said.

Rosenberg’s organization, which sets the standards for the field and issues accreditations, serves more than 15,000 camps attended by more than 26 million children in a typical year. That figure nosedived last summer, he said, because of closures and safety precautions, but is expected to rise by the end of the season — though not nearly to pre-pandemic levels.

“There is nothing about this summer that is the same as always,” Rosenberg said.

Related: Twenty-six studies point to more play for young children

Some camps have adapted new curriculum or invested more money into existing programs.

Those who led the summer camp in Elsmford knew it couldn’t undo a year of interrupted schooling, but hoped that it might help kids this fall.

“You can’t make up for an entire year in four weeks, but you can get them excited for what’s to come,” said Elizabeth McQuaid, director of curriculum development for Curious-on-Hudson. “They will have had a great experience … creating an enthusiasm and excitement for September.”

Marckez Moncada, 11, and headed to sixth grade in the fall, was initially unsure about coming to a camp run by his school. “But when my mom said, ‘You don’t have to do homework, but you get to do fun projects,’ I said ‘I’ll go.’”

Marckez’ sister, Zenaya, 10, and soon to enter fifth grade, didn’t want to spend her summer watching television. “Being at home last year, it wasn’t that much fun,” she said. “When we went virtual, it was kind of boring to not be in class.”

Their mother, Sandra Moncada, said she was glad to see a school-based program that didn’t focus on standardized testing. Her children were thrilled to attend each morning and seemed to absorb their lessons with ease because of the fun delivery.

“They came home with lots of projects,” she said. “They were so excited to share with me what they were learning.”

Many camp leaders eschewed adding academics, however. Joshua J. Phillips is Chief Executive Officer of Change Summer, an organization that aims to provide children from under-resourced communities with more equal access to high-quality summer programming. His group partners with Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit charter with campuses in six cities and three states, and Achievement First, which runs charter schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Phillips said the camps affiliated with both groups serve approximately 1,000 children per summer and are focused on nonacademic skills: independence, curiosity, responsibility and confidence.

Change Summer offers arts and crafts, dance, theater, music and sports as well as nature and adventure programming. Phillips, who worked as a teacher for more than 15 years before switching to summer camps, considered building more academics into the camp’s offerings, and raised it with the board of trustees and school partners, he said.

“The reactions from both were that we should not,” he said. “We should stick to what we know. There is a need on the social emotional and trauma side. That’s what we do and we do it extremely well.”

Both of his school partners are running separate summer academic programs.

Christie Ko, executive director of Fiver Children’s Foundation,a comprehensive youth development organization that works with kids from some of the most underserved communities in New York City and central New York, said students have been in social isolation for so long that fostering a sense of connectedness seemed more pressing than focusing on academics.

Though her summer program includes literacy and environmental education — allowing kids to learn by exploring lakes and creeks — it did not ramp up these efforts in response to the pandemic.

“I have not heard the demand for them to be sitting behind computers or doing some rote academic work while at camp,” Ko said. “Social- emotional support is what we are hearing loud and clear.”

While her summer camp is staying the course, her students’ needs have changed: Her camp director, a licensed social worker, has fielded more questions from students related to mental health than ever before, she said.

Rosenberg, of the American Camp Association, said counselors throughout the country are observing the same phenomenon.

Older campers, for example, are more homesick.

“We’ve seen significant social and emotional struggles, which is very different from previous years.”

Samantha Razook, Curious Jane

“They are working through it, but it’s taking longer,” Rosenberg said. “They’re more emotionally fragile, reactive and maybe have forgotten some subtleties of developing friendships.”

Samantha Razook, founder and CEO of Curious Jane, a project- and classroom-based program for girls ages 6 to 11, works with hundreds of children each summer in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Denver. “We’ve seen significant social and emotional struggles, which is very different from previous years,” she said, adding that anxiety and uncertainty are among girls’ greatest challenges.

She said younger campers craved one-on-one physical contact; they often asked for hugs from their counselors. Older participants were more easily agitated by their peers, and needed more mediation to help solve disputes.

Her camp, which was largely unchanged this year, except for Covid-related precautions, helped students address some social-emotional problems that stemmed from long isolation, Razook said. It was a critical service; one she did not anticipate at the start of the summer.

“Parents are so in need of having out-of-the-house, socialized, and non-screen-based opportunities for their children — and their sanity — and children are so in need of being in a social setting, with lots of tactile materials at their finger-tips, and the chance to learn and experiment with their hands,” she said.

Mia Slivinski, 10, was so enthusiastic about her experience at Curious Jane that she hopes to become a counselor-in-training next summer. Her sister, Gianna, 7, cannot wait to return to the program.

“It’s really fun to make all of the crafts,” Gianna said. “And I really liked the teachers, too.” 

Parents, happy to see their daughters enjoy such a positive outlet, asked if their sons could participate. Curious Jane developed a few “CJ for All” classes that served some boys earlier this summer. 

“When parents come back to us and say, ‘I’m seeing my child become more comfortable around other children for the first time in more than a year,’” Razook said, “I feel very, very good about that.”

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