Are virtual summer camps worth the cost?

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Traditionally, parents pay a premium so their children can play capture the flag, drink bug juice and swim in a lake through August.

This year, of course, summer camp looks very different.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, many camps have cancelled their summer sessions, others have moved online and a few are forging ahead, some with delayed start dates and new operating parameters.

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In its recently released guidelines, the American Camp Association and the YMCA of the USA offered best practices for reopening amid Covid-19, but ultimately it is up to the camps to decide a path forward factoring in recommendations from state and local governments.  

In some states, like Texas, there will be in-person summer camp; however, in many other parts of the country, the face-to-face offerings are few and far between. And still there are camps that have yet to determine a plan.    

More than 20 million children attend camp each summer in the U.S., according to the American Camp Association.

For these kids, it is a time to gain life skills, make friends, try new activities and take a break from technology.

“The opportunity to be with other children is often the most valuable part of camp and that’s going to be challenging this summer,” said Jake Schwartzwald, director of Everything Summer, a summer programs consulting firm.

For parents, camp also provides supervision and essential childcare during the summer months.

But across the board, there are still opportunities for growth and even adventure — although they look different from what has been offered in the past.

Virtual camp

Some traditional day camps and overnight camps are offering campers online opportunities throughout June, July and August, which could include at-home projects and virtual campfire singalongs that aim to recreate some of the camp experience.

In addition, there is an increasing number of remote programs for kids, ranging from art to computer science. Some schools are even offering students virtual summer sessions for the first time, which include academic classes and more creative endeavors.

“None will have the impact of in-person experiences but we desperately need any social engagement and peer-to-peer interaction,” Schwartzwald said.

In each case, the price varies. Some virtual programs cost the same as in-person sessions once did, particularly music lessons, STEM classes and tutoring. Other offerings are less expensive or even available at no cost at all.

“When anybody sees a price tag, they measure where there is value there, but 12 weeks of unstructured time isn’t ideal, either,” Schwartzwald said.

For parents who have had to function as teachers thanks to remote and at-home schooling and are now faced with the prospect of taking on the role of camp counselor, as well, “it really comes down to what is the opportunity cost to sanity,” Schwartzwald said.

Family camp

Other traditional camps are pivoting to be family camps that can accommodate small groups.

Rather than bringing together 40 children from all over, these camps can host 10 sets of families instead and reduce the potential exposure to the coronavirus, while still offering a classic log-cabin and paddle-boating experience.

Wilderness adventures

There are also some wilderness trips available for middle-school- and high-school-aged children throughout the country.

Set in remote destinations and limited in size, a hiking or backpacking adventure may suit those families who want their children exposed to nature but still restricted in terms of their social interactions.

Ad-hoc opportunities

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