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Summer camp with Julianne Hough? How camps are adapting during a pandemic

Some traditional sleep-away summer camps are trying to come up with new options, while some educational technology companies like Varsity Tutors are taking the opportunity to jump in with virtual summer camps and celebrity-led online classes

FILE - In this Aug. 28, 2018 file photo, Julianne Hough arrives at Variety’s Power of Young Hollywood in Los Angeles. Hough is the other woman. The multi-hyphenate performer will play Jolene in Netflix’s upcoming anthology series based on Dolly Parton mus
Julianne Hough arrives at Variety’s Power of Young Hollywood in Los Angeles on Aug. 28, 2018 . Hough will be teaching “StarCourses” to kick off Varsity Tutors’ Virtual Summer Camp.
Chris Pizzello, Invision via Associated Press

Movies. Music festivals. Professional sports. Broadway plays. Events across the United States — and the world — have been casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, but with summer coming up, there’s another event that is being impacted as well: summer camp.

Over 14 million children and adults attend summer camp in the U.S. each year, according to data from the American Camp Association. But with COVID-19 still a concern, there is still much uncertainty about whether camps will be able to open — and if they open, whether they can do so safely.

In Utah, some camps have chosen to open, including camps from the YMCA of Northern Utah. Meanwhile, others like the University of Utah’s Club U day camps and Campus Camps have made the decision to cancel their sessions and move to an online format where possible.

For working parents who are now home schooling their children, and who often count on summer camp as child care while school is out of session, it may be more of a challenge to figure out what to do next.

“We are praying for two things right now,” Marnie Prisand, an actress and mother of two camp-attending daughters, told the The New York Times in April. “We are praying for health and we are praying for camp.”

Other parents, however, are planning on keeping their children home, even if camps reopen. Fina Barouch, a physician from Boston and the parent of two campers, told NPR that she will not be sending her children to summer camp this year.

“It only takes one person to be shedding virus when completely asymptomatic, and my concern is that this could turn into something like the nursing home pandemic, where it just spreads exponentially,” Barouch told NPR.

It was the realization that some parents and families would likely be left in limbo this summer that led Varsity Tutors to begin planning weeklong virtual “summer camps” to keep children active and learning throughout the summer.

And Varsity Tutors isn’t alone. They’ve enlisted celebrities like Julianne Hough, Aly Raisman and others who are eager to help kids and families get through this challenging and unprecedented time.

What will summer camp look like this year?

“Camp should not and will not look as usual this summer,” Paul Dreyer, CEO of Colorado-based Avid4 Adventure camps, told CNN earlier this month.

Avid4 Adventure is just one of many traditional outdoor sleep-away camps that is experimenting with other camp models for this summer. Those models include “small group” adventure camps that will limit the number of children involved, as well as at-home options with instructors coming to campers’ homes for week-long sessions and online camps with activities conducted through Zoom. But it can be difficult to translate the experience of an outdoor camp to online or other models.

This summer marks the first year that Varsity Tutors has offered a summer camp program, having previously focused more on academic subjects and test preparation. As schools began closing in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Varsity Tutors began offering a Virtual School Day with a mix of academic and enrichment classes for children to engage in at home.

But they recognized, as summer approached, that there was more they could do to help, said Varsity Tutors’ Chief Academic Officer Brian Galvin, in an interview with the Deseret News.

“A lot of the genesis of this was because people in our own network and our own communities were asking and sort of looking to us,” Galvin said. “We kind of felt this responsibility.”

This led to the idea of an online summer camp. With a similar format to their Virtual School Day classes, Varsity Tutors will offer summer camp sessions throughout the summer, with classes for everything from building in Minecraft and writing fan fiction to learning French and public speaking.

Wanting to help on a “bigger scale,” Varsity Tutors decided to offer the weeklong camp sessions for free, as well as recruit celebrities to teach special “StarCourses” on their areas of expertise — also for free.

Pointing to the video in March of celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” as an example, Galvin said they invited stars to participate because “they’re cooped up too and looking for ways to help.”

Classes with Julianne Hough

Hough was a “natural fit” for the sort of online classes Varsity Tutors is aiming for, Galvin told the Deseret News.

“Within 10 minutes of a phone call with her, describing what we’re trying to do, she was already a wealth of ideas,” Galvin said.

The professional dancer and two-time winner of “Dancing with the Stars” will teach two movement classes based on her Kinrgy brand, streamed through live video, for Varsity Tutors’ “StarCourses” on May 21 and 28.

Because of her experience dancing in a limited space on stadium tours, Hough was already familiar with moving in a constrained space like the webcam she will have to use to film her classes, Galvin said.

“She wants opportunities to show people the power of motion and creativity,” said Galvin. “And so she was kind of a natural fit as we were thinking, ‘Hey, what can we do that’s really exciting as we show the power of online education?’”

But Hough won’t be the only celebrity taking part in the virtual classes. Astronaut Leland Melvin and gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman are other stars who will be teaching — Melvin about science and his experiences in outer space, and Raisman about health and wellness.

The stars working with Varsity Tutors are all “really passionate about using their celebrity to help other people or further knowledge,” Galvin said.

Can virtual camps be a substitute for the real thing?

Some summer camps will still open this summer, but the experience for campers will likely be much different than usual. The American Camp Association and the YMCA of the USA recently released an 82-page book of guidelines to help summer camps operate more safely during the pandemic, according to NPR. The guide also emphasizes that camps should only open in locations where reopening criteria set by the Trump administration has been met.

Even in locations where camps are able to reopen, parents still might not feel comfortable sending their children away just yet. In a recent poll from Slate, 83% of parents said they did not feel comfortable sending their children to sleep-away camp this summer, while 66% said they would not send their children to day camp.

This means that some children will likely have a different sort of camp experience this summer, and for some, that experience will be online.

But some have raised the question of whether children can get the same valuable summer camp experiences through a screen.

“That’s the mission of our camp, to instill in these kids a sense of community so they’re working together and supporting each other,” Soren Kisiel, co-camp director of Camp Equinox in Montana, told CNN. “I can’t imagine delivering that online.”

For outdoor adventure camps, virtual options might seem antithetical to their purpose.

“Our last option is to keep kids inside,” Dreyer of Avid4Adventure told CNN. “Our mission is just the opposite.”

But while there’s no replacement for being outdoors, when it comes to engagement and learning for children, online options are worthwhile, Galvin from Varsity Tutors told the Deseret News.

Online learners are less likely to experience peer pressure or feel self-conscious, leading them to be more willing to study new subjects or take risks, according to Galvin.

“There’s a lot of really unique value in online education,” Galvin said. “It’s not the next best thing to being in school — it has tangible advantages of its own.”