For many parents, summer camps are essential: with schools closed for summer break, their children need daily care and supervision. The summer camp scramble exposes the lack of systemic support for parents, who are typically on their own to juggle child care and work.
By Erin Duffy
Valerie Kochevar set an alarm for 10 a.m., took a deep breath, and logged on.
She wasn’t competing with thousands to buy coveted concert tickets for Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, or Taylor Swift.
She was trying to snag something that can prove even more elusive and in-demand for working parents: summer camp spots for her two boys.
“I don’t think my husband understood,” she said. “It’s Feb. 10, we need to have our summer plan.”
Summer camp might conjure idyllic scenes of canoeing and campfires. But for many modern families, summer camps are actually summer care, a way to cobble together child care for school-aged kids while their parents work.
In Omaha, for example, families compete for limited camp slots at the Henry Doorly Zoo, Camp Legacy, neighborhood YMCAs, and city-run camps at places like Hummel Park and Zorinsky Lake. They create detailed calendars to track summer schedules.
“Right after Christmas, right after the first of the year, I start making my little spreadsheet of what camps are available, what they cost,” said Dana Osborne, an Omaha-area mother of three. “I go over it with the kids: “Hey, I’m thinking about these camps, did you like them last year?’”
The process requires attention to detail, money, and internet savvy.
“The city camps, if you don’t log in at 8 a.m. and refresh constantly, you’re not getting in,” Osborne said. “You have to be on it and diligent … It takes planning. It takes organization.”
Both Osborne and Kochevar seek out all-day camps to accommodate work schedules—half-day camps or those that end at 3 p.m. won’t work.
For many parents, summer camps offer enrichment or educational opportunities. Kids benefit from fresh air and the prospect of making friends and learning new skills.
For others, it’s essential: with schools closed for summer break, their children need daily care and supervision. The summer camp scramble exposes the lack of systemic support for parents, who are typically on their own to juggle child care and work during school breaks.
Child care is an economic necessity for many families. Nationally, 67% of children under age 6 live in homes where all adults work, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center. In Nebraska, that figure is even higher—72%.
Regular child care can be difficult enough to find and afford–11 counties in Nebraska have no licensed child care facilities. But for some, the scramble for child care doesn’t end when children enter Kindergarten—it just shifts to before and after school, summer, and other school breaks. Kochevar counted 36 days her kids are off during the school year.
“As with after-school care, parents have to navigate a confusing patchwork of options, but in the summer, they need a plan for all day, every day, for three months,” wrote Elliot Haspel in The Atlantic.
The child care scramble affects more than just individual families. A recent report by ReadyNation estimated that child care shortages lead to $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue every year to families, businesses, and taxpayers.
In 2019, the Center for American Progress found that summer care was a significant source of stress for many families. In a survey of roughly 1,000 parents, 3 out of 4 reported some difficulty finding summer care, more than half considered it a challenge to afford, and some were planning on changing jobs or scaling back hours during the summer.
Some school districts offer summer programs through their before- and after-school providers, while others, like Omaha Public Schools, have decided to largely focus on summer school for students who need extra academic help.
Of course, not all families can afford summer care and instead must resort to asking family members, neighbors, or older siblings to watch younger children. Rural families may have fewer options nearby.
Several studies have found large variations in how children spend their summers. Lower-income kids are much less likely to be enrolled in camps, lessons, or other structured activities compared to their middle- or higher-income peers, potentially widening the opportunity gap.
Matt Kalcevich, the director of parks, recreation, and public property for the City of Omaha, has two sons and understands the “jigsaw puzzle” of summer care.
But he said the city camps strive to be an equitable and affordable option, with prices ranging from $50 per week for Camp Adams in North Omaha to $115 for the ultra-popular, rough-and-tumble Hummel Park day camp in the Ponca Hills. Several camps offer lower sign-up fees for kids who qualify for free-or-reduced lunch.
“I’d put our value up against anybody,” Kalcevich said.
The city camps have grown and expanded over the last several years and now offer 4,000 to 5,000 spots for day campers. With federal pandemic aid dollars, the city is planning to open a Hummel-style camp at Mandan Park in South Omaha in 2024, which should provide another 1,500 spots.
Families can only sign up for one week at Hummel Park and Lake Zorinsky due to demand. Kalcevich hears the grumbles about that and the cutthroat sign-up process.
“The people looking for consistency over the 10–12-week period while kids are off from school, maybe we’re not quite the fit people are looking for,” Kalcevich said. “But hopefully they’re having such a good experience with us that they’re working it into part of their plan.”
Kochevar started planning months ago. She is a freelance court reporter whose job requires deep focus. Her husband works full time, too. They have two boys, one in second grade and one in preschool.
“Since I’ve always worked from home, pre-pandemic, I’ve always hated that assumption: because you’re home you can take care of your kids,” she said. “Well, you don’t take your kids to the office.”
They joined the Jewish Community Center of Omaha so they could get a leg up—early access to camp registration. By noon on early registration day, families were already waitlisted.
It will cost Kochevar’s family roughly $2,700 for five weeks of care for the boys, an amount that makes her wince.
“A few years ago, this would have been way out of our budget,” she said.
Several weeks are still unaccounted for. Kochevar may have to work less and sacrifice some income.
Staffing shortages, a perennial problem for child care programs, can also lead to fewer slots. Tonya Jolley, an instructional program administrator at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, typically enrolls her son in a summer program run by his after-school provider. Last year, they didn’t have enough staff to operate the whole summer.
She and her husband, who live in Lincoln, instead spent several thousand dollars on zoo camp and a part-time nanny who cared for their son once camp ended at 3 p.m. This year, she signed him up for YMCA camps months ahead of time.
“I can’t wait until he’s old enough to stay home,” she said. “I know I am fortunate and so is my son for what we can provide and what he can experience. All children should have access to quality summer child care programs and resources.”
How can we improve this system?
The Center for American Progress cited several possibilities: increasing federal funding for Child Care and Development Block Grants and 21st Century Learning Centers and capping families’ child care spending. Others have argued for a shift to year-round schooling.
Jolley, Kochevar, and Osborne all said it would help to have summer camp guides or a centralized registration system. Jolley thinks expanded sliding-scale payments and scholarship options for lower-income families, transportation, and free lunches would help provide more equitable summer experiences for kids.
But for now, families are once again on their own to solve this child care dilemma, Jolley said.
“No matter what you do, whether you have money or no money, you have to piecemeal it to get it all covered.”
Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org