It’s a summer morning on the Union Elementary School playground and, if you close your eyes, it could be any playground you’ve ever known. There’s the thump of running feet, the sounds of children calling to each other and, from a distance, the rhythmic squeak of the swings. School is out, and Montpelier’s Part 2 Summer Camp is in.
But this is a summer like no other and there are differences.
In May Governor Scott announced that day camps and child care centers would be allowed to open. Part 2 Director Kaitlyn Bertelsen says that she and her staff weren’t surprised by the governor’s decision. “We knew what families were dealing with.”
So Part 2 began the arduous task of creating the safest possible setting for children. Everything had to be sanitized, and routines to keep children well had to be established. There would be daily health and temperature checks for staff members and children, handwashing with every transition, and a plan to disinfect playground equipment after every group used it. Each child was placed in a small cohort that would remain together throughout the summer. The staff now refers to them as “pods,” the term the children will hear when they return to school in September.
The summer program uses the spacious Union School cafeteria plus a kindergarten classroom to house their 22 attendees. Even within their groups, different tables are used for eating and for activities. “Germs are more of a problem when kids are eating,” notes Bertelsen.
Part 2 has to be creative about play. The children are taught to tag each other by throwing a soft ball rather than physically touching each other. There are one-hour recess blocks each day and long periods of time playing in parks and nearby fields. But the old mantra “Caring is sharing” has to be set aside in 2020.
The staff was prepared to help with COVID-related anxiety, however, Bertelsen says they didn’t see much tension. They did hear a lot more talk about germs and comments such as, “Don’t touch that! I don’t want any of your germs.”
If you ask Bertelsen about Part 2’s biggest challenge, she’ll answer “masks.” In the beginning, parents were given the option of having their child wear a mask or not. That led to complaints. “He’s not wearing a mask. Why do I have to?” But as the habit of wearing masks became commonplace, more and more campers arrived with their own. The staff saw even the youngest kids begin to develop “muscle memory,” automatically pulling up their masks when they drifted down.
Part 2 staffers know that children lose things. In the winter, mittens go astray, and they anticipated that the same thing might happen with masks, although children are taught to place the mask in their pocket while eating. And masks can get dirty or fall onto the ground, so there’s always an extra supply of clean ones.
Mask wearing isn’t an easy lesson to teach. If you have a hard time keeping yours on while you stroll through the Price Chopper, think about how hard this is for a six year old. Bertelsen says they teach skills in a “kind and non-faulting” way, with group celebrations and gold stars for meeting expectations. Children are reminded that you wear your mask to keep others safe, just as you wash your hands over and over to keep yourself well.
On the upside, while some children make a “yuck” face when asked about masks, others delight in describing their extensive mask collections.
Part 2 has provided a service to this community in offering children a welcoming place to be with their peers while their families are freed up to get on with the business of earning a living, but Part 2, with its small enrollment, options for outdoor play, and generous amount of indoor space, doesn’t have to deal with the hurdles our public schools will face next month.
Nonetheless, what they’ve accomplished this summer reminds us that choosing to open a school is just the beginning. It takes flexibility, creativity, and, sometimes, just drudgery to remain open.
And there are rewards. Part 2 campers talk about visits to the Waterbury Reservoir, water balloon fights, reading time, and making bracelets during “activities,” but if you ask 6-year-old Timothy about the best thing, he smiles and says, “ I have LOTS of friends there.”