Giving Thought: Summer youth programs ask, ‘Can we open and, if so, how?’

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

As we head into summer, parents throughout the region are wondering what to do with their kids, who are now on vacation for three months.

In the time of COVID-19, these are not easy questions to answer. The same health risks that shut down public schools and child care centers during the spring are now presenting summer camps and other youth programs with the same set of questions. First, these organizations are wondering, can we legally open our doors? And, if we receive the requisite government permissions, how do we open our doors in a manner that is safe for our employees, safe for the kids and safe for our bottom line?

The answers vary widely. Every town, city or county has its own set of rules for all the businesses and nonprofits within its borders. And every organization has its own distinct programs, procedures, staffing model, expense budget and revenue stream, and chances are that COVID-19 has altered some if not all of those variables. So, opening the doors is not a matter of returning to the same time-honored routines; it’s a matter of adapting those old routines to fit a drastically altered reality.

You cannot simply welcome the kids back into the Aspen Youth Center with a hug or handshake; you need to greet them in the parking lot and do a health check before they enter the building. Michaela Idhammar, executive director at AYC, learned May 26 that she is allowed to reopen, but there are hurdles to cross first.

“Gov. (Jared) Polis did announce that youth programs can open again,” she said. “And my board of directors has approved us reopening — if we’re approved through the city (of Aspen) and Pitkin County. … Free and low-cost child care is going to be essential for people getting back to work.”

In Garfield County, youth programs were allowed to reopen in mid-May. Stepping Stones, a youth mentoring organization in Carbondale, has been back in business for two-and-a-half weeks, but procedures have changed. They’re spending a lot more on cleaning supplies and they’re simplifying things by curtailing all food preparation. Instead of the laid-back, drop-in visitation that used to characterize Stepping Stones, each adult mentor is now grouped with seven kids and each group is physically separate from the others.

“We’re operating now at about half our usual capacity,” said executive director Kyle Crawley, who was about to leave on a mountain bike ride with his group. “We had to change the furniture. There are no more couches where two people can sit together. There are individual chairs in taped-off sections.”

Other nonprofits simply cannot devise a safe, feasible way to provide their traditional services. In some cases, they don’t have enough physical space to host youngsters while keeping everyone 6 feet apart. Other organizations have staffing or budgetary constraints that make it unwise to open their doors; some are offering online classes or activities for children with access to a computer.

Summer Advantage, which provides summer learning to 550 children in the Roaring Fork School District, has canceled its 2020 program because of the public health risks.

“This was a difficult decision made in the interest of the health and safety of our students, staff and community,” Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein said.

But a substitute offering is in the works, according to Terri Caine, executive director of Summit 54, an Aspen-based nonprofit that supports the local Summer Advantage program. In partnership with Valley Settlement, Summit 54 is planning to provide free, small-group tutoring sessions with licensed teachers in math and literacy from June 22 to July 23.

“We anticipate many families will be eager for their children to participate in this free outdoor tutoring program to help their children make up for lost class time,” Caine said.

She encouraged interested families to contact Summit 54 or Valley Settlement as soon as possible.

This kind of creative collaboration may characterize many 2020 summer offerings for local youth. Like it or not, it’s going to be an unusual summer.

If you’re wondering whether your favorite camp or kids’ program will reopen this summer, check their website or give them a phone call. Recognize that traditional practices and procedures are often unsafe or impractical in the COVID-19 era. Be aware also that the rules and operational landscape are changing constantly.

“We are trying our best to open, and the city and county are doing their, best too,” Idhammar said. “We just need to do this safely, and then slowly return to what we did before. It may be frustrating at times, but everyone is really being helpful and trying to navigate this.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.