Between balancing her work priorities from home and helping raise an 11-year-old, Tucson resident Michelle Ortiz said sending her youngest child to summer camp would be a welcome relief—though she’s not holding her breath.
“A summer camp, or anything that would give her the opportunity to be engaged, be stimulated, play with and have social time with other kids, would be optimal,” said Ortiz, who looks after Olivia, her boyfriend’s daughter.
Ortiz isn’t alone in her desire for programming. Families already struggling to keep their kids happy and motivated without school or after-school classes may soon face another challenge as they search for a summer camp. No one really knows what parts of the state (if any) will reopen next month.
Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-home order will expire next Thursday, April 30, and Ducey said Wednesday that he’s waiting to make any decisions until next week.
That leaves very little wiggle room for municipalities, nonprofits and community groups which normally host camps beginning mid-May.
For the Town of Oro Valley, the will-they-won’t-they of the state and federal government means it could be a summer without camp—something Parks and Recreation Director Kristy Diaz-Trahan considers a big loss for local kids.
“All of these families have been isolated for so long and now we’re potentially going to be facing more months where kids won’t have an opportunity to run, explore, play and build new relationships and do cannonballs and all that great stuff,” she said. “We’re just hopeful that they’re going to have that opportunity.”
Summer camp in Oro Valley normally takes place at one of three main locations: Steam Pump Ranch, the Aquatic Center and the Community Center.
The ranch camp, also known as Art and STEM = STEAM, is a hands-on experience that allows campers to dig in the dirt, explore a variety of arts and cultures and learn how STEM has progressed with time. At the Aquatic Center, campers make use of the nearby James D. Kreigh Park, play sports, do arts and crafts and make liberal use of the pool and slide. The town’s summer camp at the community center is a more traditional affair: Attendees are organized into age groups and rotate through a variety of activities like golf, tennis, pickleball, swimming, playing chess, dodgeball and more.
With the aquatic and community centers closed since March 18, things are looking a little different in Oro Valley.
Diaz-Trahan said she’s in “wait and see” mode when it comes to reopening recreation facilities and moving forward with programming, and looks towards the federal government’s “Opening Up America Again” program for some idea as to when that might happen.
The federal guidelines include a list of criteria states must accomplish before beginning to reopen, including a downward trajectory of influenza-like and COVID-19 cases for two weeks and having “robust testing” in place.
After those initial goals are met, a state can move into Phase 1—which does not include the reopening of schools and organized youth activities. That prohibition isn’t lifted until Phase 2.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take Arizona to get to phase two,” Diaz-Trahan said. “We’re hopeful that is soon. We’re hopeful because that would mean we’re recovering as a state, but also in terms of being able to offer these recreation programs. … With everybody isolated, the need to get outside and run, stretch your bodies, exercise and socialize, is more important now than it ever has been.”
Outside of tracking federal guidelines, Diaz-Trahan said she’s been in conversations with her parks and rec staff as well as other recreation directors from across the state in an effort to better understand how other similar groups are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not only have they discussed plans to launch programming when closures are lifted, but also how to connect with the local population while everyone is sheltering at home.
For the Oro Valley team, maintaining a connection with the community is key to their mission.
“I miss seeing people out there, the sports teams out there, the people at the dog park with their pets, the people coming in to workout and having coffee later,” Diaz-Trahan said. “All of that interaction you see when people have that physical activity and social engagement, and the joy that it brings, I just miss that so much.”
To make sure Oro Valley residents feel the love (and receive some motivation to stay active) the parks and rec department has taken to its already popular Facebook account. The team now posts a variety of different activities, ranging from arts and crafts to exploration ideas, workouts from fitness instructors and more.
While the Town of Oro Valley is leaning more on the internet to make sure residents stay connected and active as the summer begins, the University of Arizona has moved its summer programming completely online.
At the helm is Jieun Ryu, director of the Critical Languages Program, which partnered with the East Asian Studies program to host a Korean camp.
Campers can enroll for the five-day session, which will include learning the Korean alphabet, understanding the syntax and an introduction into Korean culture.
The summer camp was originally scheduled to take place in person for its inaugural year, but the university forced its programs to move online as the COVID-19 pandemic grew. For Ryu, that meant an overhaul of the camp.
Instead of learning popular K-pop choreography and Taekwondo in between their language lessons, campers will follow along with an instructor through Zoom video chat as they virtually visit museums websites and tourist destinations in Korean.
“I am hoping our students will be able to learn how each language has a different perspective and syntax, and how the language was formed,” Ryu said.
The program will be led by Sojung Chun, a Korean instructor in the East Asian Studies program with nearly 10 years of experience teaching the language to students of all ages. Chun has also taught at Pima Community College and in the Tucson Unified School District. Ryu said Chun has a lot of experience with teaching technology, and is more than ready to handle an online summer camp.
While Ryu and her camp are moving forward digitally, most programming is wait-and-see contingent on the state reopening sometime soon.
According to Girls Scouts of Southern Arizona Communications Coordinator Gaby Salazar, the organization is still planning on summer camps as planned, but that could change quickly.
“Our council is closely monitoring how COVID-19 could affect our plans,” Salazar told Tucson Local Media. “Over the next couple of weeks—hopefully by early May—we hope to have a final decision about in-person camp. Should we choose to forgo in-person camp, we are in the planning stages of alternative camp options.”
It’s a similar story at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
“Due to the situation regarding COVID-19, the Tucson J is temporarily closed in order to protect community health,” said Tucson JCC Communications Director Khylie Gardner. “We are following the advice of the CDC, Pima County and the State of Arizona and look forward to re-opening our doors when it is safe and appropriate to do so. Our intention is to re-open at the beginning of May.”
Even if programs remain closed, outdoor recreation options remain few and far between after local municipalities closed communal amenities. Pima County has shut down all ramadas, baseball dugouts, playgrounds, splash pads, basketball courts and most restrooms.
The City of Tucson's parks and rec department also closed all city park playgrounds and other equipment.
While the community and aquatic center remain closed in Oro Valley, parks and trails still remain open. Marana’s public playground structures and drinking fountains are closed, while parks, trails and preserves remain open.
Even though she still has some time before 11-year-old Olivia is done with her school work for the year and the summer slump (potentially) kicks in, Ortiz hopes there will be some options available for her soon.
“It’s very important for summer camps to somehow find a way to get the kids back out there,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll know more about what to do, what way we should go, by the end of May.”