Is virtual camp worth the cost? Parents question the value of kids attending summer sessions on a screen

tfitzpatrick//May 25, 2020

Is virtual camp worth the cost? Parents question the value of kids attending summer sessions on a screen

tfitzpatrick//May 25, 2020

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Marion Gammill Keller would have locked down her daughters’ summer plans by mid-April: all-day basketball, gymnastics and theater camps to occupy her energetic 8-year-old twins.

As of mid-May, Keller, a Houston finance executive, is still sorting out her their options, with virtual camps likely to play a part — and not the most economical one.

Even though online camps cost less, Keller doesn’t expect to save money. That’s because she and her husband are working, splitting their time between the office and home, which means they need to pay their caregiver to also work all summer, overseeing the twins who will probably attend “camp” through their screens at home.

“With virtual camps, you still need a person to take care of the kid,” Keller says.

From finances to children’s safety, uncertainty and questions abound for families trying to plan summer 2020. Parents typically spend about $300 per week on their child’s summer camps, which allows them to work while their kids are engaged in the outdoors, the arts or learning skills like coding.

But parents worry that virtual camps may not replace that experience, with many spanning only an hour or two a day, rather than offering full-day programming.  At the same time, the $18 billion camp industry is facing a crisis as camp directors grapple with operating safely in a pandemic.

Many camps as of mid-May are still deciding whether they will offer in-person sessions this summer, with camp directors chasing rapidly evolving state and local regulations aimed at curbing the pandemic, says Tom Rosenberg, the chief executive of the American Camp Association, a trade association for camps.

His organization this month published a field guide for camp operations during COVID-19, which recommends new protocols such as temperature pre-screening for campers each of the 14 days prior to arriving at camp.

The dilemma of virtual camp could also pose problems for parents who have set aside pre-tax dollars in dependent-care flexible spending accounts for summer camps. Because pre-tax dollars can be used only for child-care expenses that allow parents to work, it’s not clear whether virtual camps, which typically don’t offer full-day programming, will qualify for reimbursement, experts say. The good news is that the IRS in May loosened its rules about FSA accounts, allowing parents to readjust their contributions.

Pivoting to virtual camp

Safety is top of mind for John Shaw and Anna Kate Mackle, musicians in St. Petersburg, Florida, who both plan on teaching at a North Carolina music camp — virtually. Their daughter, 14, is set to attend a music camp in Vermont which has neither canceled nor shifted online. Aside from concerns about her safety, they’re now reconsidering the camp’s cost, which stands at more than $6,000.

“These camps aren’t cheap,” Shaw says. “I would probably talk with them about rearranging the finances, since we’ve lost work ourselves.”

Camps that have switched to virtual programs typically have reduced their prices. Others have extended registration deadlines to give parents more time to consider their options.

One of those is Hosmer Point, an overnight camp in Vermont. A typical summer two-week session consists of swimming and boating, archery and crafts — but the camp recently announced it would instead offer “Hosmer at Home,” a virtual version of itself.

Instead of roughly $2,200 for a two-week session, the camp is asking families to pay what they can, ranging from about $50 to $350. It’s also extended its registration deadline to June 1, compared with its typical mid-March deadline for tuition payment.

Price reductions

So far, parents are weighing their options. Carrie Glessner, administrative director of Hosmer Point, notes that about 15% of campers have signed up for virtual camp as of mid-May. She’s hoping that about half will eventually sign up.

“We didn’t want to cancel without offering something else,” Glessner says.

There’s also the question of whether families want to pay for more online programming following months of Zoom classes.

That’s something Isabel Koral understands. Koral, a 19-year-old college student, just finished her semester of online classes, and was planning to work as a counselor at the Massachusetts camp that she attended from age 10. Those plans changed when the camp recently announced it wouldn’t open this summer due to the pandemic. The camp isn’t offering a virtual version of itself.

“One of the parts of camp that kids and parents definitely really like is that you are spending a month without your phone,” Koral says. “I would see why people would see virtual camp as very twisted — it’s just adding to your screen time.”

The ACA’s Rosenberg predicts that this summer could lead to innovations in summer programs, such as new technology and platforms for online camps. But he’s aware of the frustrations that some campers and parents feel when they consider a summer of screen time.

The stress of the pandemic means “our kids need camp more than ever,” he adds. “Many kids are cast adrift in a sea of screens.”

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