Never has there been a summer when children so badly need the companionship, creativity and physical exertion that camps offer when schools close their doors at holiday time.
Many parents too are yearning for an injection of temporary separation and independence into family bonds superglued by the Covid-19 lockdown. For some their jobs – or their sanity – depends on that.
May is normally the time of year that oh-so-organised type of parent would put the wind up you by mentioning they had booked their children into some of the most-sought-after summer camps months ago. For them – and the organisers – it’s a case of “best-laid plans” etc.
Inevitably, a huge cloud of uncertainty hangs over the summer camps of 2020. The providers, who straddle the education/sport/childcare/youth work/small business sectors, are in the dark about where they might slot into the reopening Ireland roadmap.
Asked about their plans, providers’ responses range from optimism about being able to offer something “live” from July 20th to acceptance that summer 2020 is a total write-off.
Those hanging in there and awaiting clarity are busy working out how they might be able to comply with Government guidelines for social distancing and reassure parents and staff it’s safe; some wonder if in fact phase five, from August 10th, applies to them, so will it be worth trying to run anything after that?
Parents too can only guess at what might happen.
Directly after the Taoiseach unveiled the roadmap’s five phases on May 1st, Garry Lowe of WhizzKids received two bookings and one cancellation for their summer computer camps, illustrating, he suggests, the different way information is being interpreted.
Meanwhile, distance learning requirements since the schools closed on March 14th has spurred his company and others into devising virtual camps. But who knows if families’ experience through lockdown will make them more or less likely to embrace new online opportunities?
Lowe has been seeking clarification on how the reopening phases will affect them.
“The Department of Education is saying it’s commercial, go to the Department of Enterprise – and they say they will further clarify in due course.”
It's a waiting game, yet at WhizzKids they have never been busier, he reports. The need to provide online school classes accelerated their creation of a digital skills virtual classroom at whizzkids.io.
“This facilitates us running virtual summer camps, if that’s the way it’s going to go,” says Lowe. “We would very much like to have the traditional camps, but obviously we have to stay in tune with the phases and do what’s right for the kids and our staff.”
“We’re not as popular as sports camps,” he adds, “but the kids who like what we do, love what we do. There are not a lot of options out there for them.”
While WhizzKids’ camps at 11 universities and colleges of technology involved about 1,600 children aged eight to 15 last summer, the GAA Cúl Camps attracted nearly 156,175 children between the ages of six and 13 to 1,250 centres around the country.
The hope that primary schools would pave the way in bringing children together with partial reopening before the summer break was dashed with the launch of the roadmap. Cúl camps are still open for booking at the time of writing, but full refunds are promised if they are forced to cancel.
The morning after GAA president John Horan has said training will not resume until July 20th at the earliest, national Cúl camps co-ordinator Charles Harrison says camps are no different to training. He has prepared a roadmap for camps and is still planning for them to go ahead from July 20th, HSE guidelines permitting.
Let's Go! have been running multi-activity summer camps for primary-school age children for the past 35 years and its founder, Eileen Sheehy, is determined to do everything she can to ensure they don't stop now.
“We obviously would have to run a very different kind of camp,” she says. A team of four PE teachers are devising a new, skills-based programme for the camps which, last year, attracted 20,000 children.
With some camps booked out and all staff recruited before the country knew about the realities of Covid-19, they’re “ready to rock” if they get the green light for after July 20th
Parents want summer camps to bring children away from their house and Zoom doesn't do that at all
“The important thing is for kids to get to camps,” she says, after such a challenging time for their mental health. As with any company restarting after the lockdown, she believes “the monetary end of it is not going to be the focus, it is to get it happening is the priority”.
Parents are really struggling with the need of children to reconnect with friends, says Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents' Council, Primary. That need is all the greater for younger children who can't connect through technology, "but they are the ones who will find it so hard to understand the social distancing when they finally get back with their friends".
Personally, she can’t see summer schools going ahead. While virtual camps would be better than nothing, having younger children on technology “has got to involve the parents”, she adds, “there is a safety element there”.
Baz Rycraft of RockJam acknowledges the "fundamental problem" that "parents want summer camps to bring children away from their house and Zoom doesn't do that at all". He reckons the "boutique" camps they have been running in four Dublin venues over the past seven years "are pretty much wiped out", but, if they can hold some with social distancing, they will.
However, having already switched their weekly RockJam sessions to Zoom during the lockdown, they do have virtual options.
Lisa O'Brien and Majella Brohan, who took over Kids Guide Ireland last autumn, had to cancel the company's annual summer camp fair in Dublin in May. While stressing it is still too early to call, "my feeling is summer camps are gone", says O'Brien.
Having already planned to introduce a "what's on in your area" dimension to the website, she hopes they will be able to help flag whatever can proceed at grassroots level. With her other business MineVention, which organises gaming events for the computer game Minecraft, she has already had to defer a weekend event in Dublin from April to October and won't be attempting to run anything before then.
Jill Holtz is founder of Mykidstime.com, which would normally be full of information on summer camps from springtime onwards. "Plans are either dormant or they are moving on to a tutorial-type scenario," she says. It's not just the question of the viability for camps to run with reduced numbers but also the finances of families.
From July onwards, Holtz’s plan is to focus their website on ideas for free things to do with children at home – and outdoors, as that opens up through the reopening phases.
“We reckon that is when some of this crunch will happen and people are just going to be broke,” she adds.
Designer Minds, which ran 105 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) summer camps in 21 counties last year, have already decided they won't be running any this summer – physical or virtual. With the current uncertainty and safety concerns for parents and children, director Donal Lyne thinks it is "inconceivable to do physical camps this summer in a reliable fashion".
Aengus O'Connor of the Connemara Maths Academy also thinks the chances of holding their residential camps, that combine STEM topics, adventure activities and team sports and attract overseas youngsters, are "slim to nil". But they are still going through every permutation possible while awaiting official guidance.
“We are of course hoping for the best while preparing for the worst,” he says. Whatever happens this year, he is “absolutely certain” they will be back in 2021.
Parents too have their doubts.
Emily Manning, whose daughter Matilda (10) would normally do camps over three weeks in the summer, primarily GAA ones, can’t see them being able to operate this year, despite talk of team sports and training after July 20th.
“The very nature of children is that they want to interact with each other and that’s perfectly understandable – it’s just too difficult to maintain social distancing, even in training.”
She thinks new types of camps might emerge from activity providers whose Zoom classes have worked in recent weeks. “Not a full day obviously, but a block such as creative writing or language classes.”
Manning, who works from home in Portmarnock, Co Dublin as editor of Mykidstime, would not have previously considered such options “because I would want her to be outside and enjoying the sunshine and doing the sport”. But in the absence of anything else, she would be happy to pay for them.
“Not so much to make it easier for me,” she adds, “but more for the social aspect, for her being both an only child and being at home.”
Another mother, with an 11-year-old daughter and twin boys aged eight, had planned on booking a football camp for the boys; the three would also normally do a week of a school camp and one run by their parish church each August.
She is dubious about the idea of virtual camps because she believes most of the fun of summer camps for children being meeting new people and the social element.
“At the moment my daughter’s gymnastic club offers virtual classes once a week and she has refused to engage,” she adds. “Personally, I would prefer to save the money and do something decent when things get back to normal.”
Read: What summer camps are currently offering