In the last week, as a board member for the Los Angeles Unified School District, I’ve seen students return to school campuses after more than a year of distance learning. As a leader for a nonprofit camp program, I also watched kids participate in an outdoor camp program after more than a year of limited social interaction. Both are critical to the recovery for America’s children — a recovery that could get a big boost thanks to President Biden’s American Families Plan, which promises $1.8 trillion for education and childcare.
However, while we should celebrate the President’s historic investment in our nation’s children and working parents, his plan is missing a big opportunity. To prevent millions of kids from slipping back into isolation during the coming summer months, when schools close once again and many parents return to work, President Biden should call for federally funded free summer day camp for all school-aged children.
This national program could strengthen children’s resilience and recovery during these crucial next months and help to fill the gaping holes in our social safety net that this pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated.
Mental health problems have taken a dramatic toll on America’s kids during the last year, leading to increased cases of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Now, even though many children are finally returning to their classrooms in California and across the country, their reprieve from socio-emotional distress will be short-lived. When the school year ends, most kids will return home and spend the summer inactive and separated from their peers.
At the same time that so many children will have nowhere to go, millions of parents are going to work. More than 80% of families are already worrying about basic childcare needs.
Summer also highlights inequities that affect our children. While more affluent children go off to summer camp, travel or participate in an array of activities, kids in low-income neighborhoods are five times less likely to attend summer camp than their wealthier peers.
A national summer camp program would tackle these challenges head-on. It would give kids a place to go and allow them to make up for the time spent suffering in isolation by playing, learning and developing social skills and knowledge that will help them recover academically. It would enable their parents to return to work, without incurring the crippling costs of childcare.
And by hiring young adults and college students on summer break to serve as counselors, the program would provide an economic boost to young adults and give them a meaningful way to connect to their communities.
Implementing a national free summer camp is more affordable than it might sound. We already have the land: public school campuses, which could be kept open during the summer with federal support—and national parks and other landmarks, which could offer free entrance for camp programs to visit. And for the thousands of camps that already exist, the federal government could help expand slots for low-income families.
Right now, school districts across the country are deciding how to use COVID-19 relief funding to best serve our students’ academic, social-emotional and overall well-being. Districts like ours will spend tens of millions on summer school to mitigate a year of learning loss. But summer camp would provide plenty of opportunities for academic enrichment while also addressing something more fundamental: socio-emotional healing and growth.
Studies have shown us that kids struggle to learn when they’re traumatized. Having worked with children both as a teacher and as a camp director, I’ve seen resilience taught just as effectively on ropes courses, athletic fields, lakes and in the mountains as in a classroom.
We need more than summer school. We need kids to be able to play, to be outdoors instead of behind screens. We need to help kids build new relationships, not just with each other, but with mentors and role models in the form of counselors. And we need kids to connect with, and come to love, the planet that we’re asking them to help save.
In his first 100 days, President Biden has reminded us that, at its best, government can bring people together to do incredible things. In the U.S., that includes free schooling for every child and the best public universities in the world. In his next 100 days, President Biden should add free summer camp to that list. It will help every community, small towns and big cities alike, rediscover the meaning of connecting offline, the joy of play, the healing of community and the essential role that government can play in making our lives better.