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Missoula summer camps prepare to open with changes

Missoulian, Mont. — Cameron Evans Missoulian, Mont.

May 23-- May 23--Students were still in school and "coronavirus" was still a new word for many when registration for the Flagship Program's summer camps opened earlier this winter.

At the time, the afterschool program held in eight Missoula County Public Schools had enrolled almost 20 kids in each of their summer programs, but they had to completely scrap enrollment due to school closures from the pandemic. The program was uncertain if it would be able to use the school buildings over the summer, said Nicole Mitchell, Flagship program manager, in a recent interview.

Now, with the state set to enter the second phase of reopening on June 1, summer camps in Missoula including ones through Flagship, Missoula Parks and Recreation, Missoula YMCA, and the Boys and Girls Club of Missoula County, are planning to reopen with some modifications. Flagship offers free camps and financial assistance is available through other licensed programs.

"Planning a summer program takes months and months to do," Mitchell said. "We just found out we could open, so we're literally just trying to figure out what we are going to do now."

Flagship is planning to start running programs on June 15, with the elementary and high school programs holding in-person camps, and the middle school programs continuing an online model created during school closures before opening in-person camps in July.

The city of Missoula's Parks and Recreation will also welcome kids back for summer camps with some modifications and is working with the Missoula City-County Health Department to meet all state and local safety standards for the 3,800 kids they serve throughout the summer.

"This summer, we'll be keeping campers in smaller groups, using 6 feet physical distancing, taking campers' temperatures at check-in each morning, and providing face coverings for campers and staff for when physical distancing isn't feasible," Meg Whicher, the department's recreation program manager, said in an email.

"We've eliminated equipment and supply sharing as much as possible, and we've designed detailed sanitation protocols for both equipment and facilities."

The Missoula YMCA will also hold summer camps, but will have smaller group sizes and hire upward of 50% more staff to support the smaller groups. The organization is also looking for different facilities to operate the camps out of, such as Missoula County Public Schools, so they can minimize the number of people using the Y building.

"We run several pretty big camps, and we've had camps of up to 75 kiddos in the same group, but that's definitely not going to happen this summer," said Tyler Taylor, associate director of the Missoula Y's school age programs.

The Boys and Girls Club of Missoula County will distance campers by spreading groups across different locations within the county.

"Traditionally, we serve about 150 kids here at one building, but of course, we're not doing that so we've had to do a bunch of partnering with other facility spaces and get all of those certified by the health department," said Katie Moore, Boys & Girls Club of Missoula CEO.

Moore said they've seen an increase in enrollment this year for their summer programs, which start on June 15.

"At first, it was a really slow enrollment process," Moore said. "We didn't have a lot of kids until about two weeks ago, and these past few weeks, we've seen a huge uptick in enrollment."

Moore said holding summer camps will be an easy transition for the organization, which has offered emergency child care during the coronavirus pandemic. She said she thinks it's important to keep camps open so kids can have in-person interactions with their peers and with adult mentors. Summer camps can also be an important source for meals for some families during the summer, and Moore said their program provides free breakfast, lunch, snacks, and food to take home every day.

This summer, the Boys and Girls Club and Flagship are also looking at ways to help students academically who may have fallen behind with online learning.

Summer camps are also an essential form of child care for school-aged kids during the summer, especially for low-income families who attend free or scholarship-based programs.

In an effort to make sure summer camps in Missoula could operate this summer and provide essential child care, about 50 providers and camp employees discussed best practices in a webinar organized by Grace Decker of the Missoula Reopening Group and United Way's Zero to Five initiative.

Decker said she wanted to make sure camps felt confident that they could operate as the state and county have not released summer camp-specific guidelines, leaving it up to programs to decide how to operate.

"When we were putting our webinar together, the health department wanted us, at every stage of the game, to be really clear with people that this is what we know today, and there's no way to know when things are going to change in any direction," Decker said. "We could roll back or we could continue to open further, so it's just really hard to know."

Apart from figuring out logistics, changes to camp operations have posed other challenges for camps.

Many camps are cutting back on far-away field trips because buses make it difficult for kids to maintain social distancing. Moore said the Boys and Girls Club is assigning one of their clubs vans to each of group, and Parks and Rec plans to have more kids bike to nearby sites. Flagship programs may have to remain on school sites for the most part.

On a positive note, Whicher said eliminating the use of vans has allowed them to open more spots for enrollment. She said there are still about 250 spots available in their day camps, which parents can register for at

The Y will need to increase camp counselors by about 50% to keep up with the smaller group sizes, according to Taylor. He said the increased staffing will likely significantly reduce profit margins for the summer. Still, he thinks it's important to hold camps regardless.

"Beyond just the childcare piece, I think it's really important to give kids a sense of normalcy again," Taylor said. "They've had their schools shut down, they haven't been able to hang out with their friends, and this is a taste of what it's going to be like to get life back to normal."


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