By Nat Saltonstall, SPARC, and Karen McCann McClelland, Sidwell Friends School
Enthusiasm for the summer months extends across our independent school communities — from a child looking forward to playing among friends, to a camp director who is energized by building a vibrant summer community, to a CFO who is eager to generate non-tuition revenue. After so many summer programs canceled their 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic – 60% according to a survey we at SPARC conducted — anticipation for programming this upcoming summer is stronger than ever.
In the depths of winter, independent school summer program directors are working to redesign programs, model varying budget scenarios, and develop appropriate risk mitigation strategies. And they are likely undertaking this daunting task with less input and attention from school leadership, which is understandably consumed by the current day-to-day challenges presented by the pandemic. To support and accelerate these vital planning efforts, we have developed considerations and best practices during this challenging time.
Under any circumstances, it is important to remember that summer and auxiliary programs best serve their schools when they are driven by a clear set of institutionally agreed upon strategic priorities. Whether that is to generate non-tuition net revenue, support admissions efforts, or provide added value to school families, all schools must determine their own well-defined goals that specify their purpose. Well-articulated goals provide clarity around program development and become the criteria by which summer and auxiliary programs success is measured.
One of COVID’s many impacts was a shift in summer programs’ strategic priorities. Many schools responded to the crisis by utilizing their summer programs to provide added value to existing school families and students through virtual or in-person enrichment offerings. In fact, 41% of schools SPARC surveyed said they served “more” or “significantly more” of their own student body than a typical summer. By providing additional opportunities for learning and social interaction after a difficult spring, school leaders believed they were utilizing summer programs to invest in the long-term health of the school, despite the short-term loss of revenue. We encourage schools to continually reevaluate their summer program’s strategic priorities as they develop and implement their 2021 summer programming.
While the pandemic has required nearly all school faculty and staff to adjust the many ways they serve the larger needs of the school, summer and auxiliary program directors have arguably become the ultimate “utility players.” According our recent survey, 62% of auxiliary directors have been assigned “limited or significant new responsibilities,” while nearly 10% have completely “new and different responsibilities” as a result of the pandemic. The list of added responsibilities is extensive and varied, with the most common being school reopening project manager, faculty/staff childcare manager, substitute teacher, COVID response coordinator, and drop-off and pick-up coordinator. This no doubt speaks to auxiliary teams’ wide range of leadership skills and their ability to adapt in support of their schools.
We highly recommend the summer programs director reclaim their primary responsibilities in the near future to allow time and focus for effective summer program planning and development. Running a high quality, successful summer program is a challenging and time-consuming job even in the best of times, not to mention during a pandemic. If your school’s goal is to run in-person programming this summer that is safe and organized, and maximizes your school’s chance of meeting its strategic goals, then you must provide your director with the necessary time and school leadership’s full support.
We developed this series of recommendations and considerations to accelerate your planning for summer 2021. The sections below provide an overview of important areas to consider. To see a more detailed and comprehensive planning checklist, please refer to the SPARC Summer Programs Checklist.
A critical starting point in summer planning is determining how much you need to modify or redesign your programs to meet expectations for safety. We saw this in practice last summer, as nearly three-quarters of schools surveyed developed and ran some form of virtual programming. Most schools across the country currently expect to offer some form of in-person programs this summer, but with adjustments in their structure and capacity. Consider the following:
Given experiences last spring and summer, it is prudent to review summer programs’ policies and procedures with the goal of being both protective of the school and sensitive to changing health conditions and protocols. Reflect on your mission and goals as you review your registration process and timeline as well as refund and cancellation policies. Is the priority keeping registration fees or building community relations and goodwill among your families? Be mindful of deadlines that will affect staff hiring or other key planning. Consider the following:
By Bob Rojee, Director of Auxiliary Programs, The Wheeler School
Like so many other independent schools, The Wheeler School did not operate any summer programs in 2020. Even as we tried to modify our many offerings, strict regulations and guidelines from both Massachusetts and Rhode Island made it too difficult to open. In a typical summer, Wheeler hosts almost 1,000 children over the course of our 10-week day camp programs. As we turn the page to 2021, we can say with confidence that we will be prepared to deliver safe, in-person programming on our two campuses.
“With strong partnerships and in-person experience from the current school year, the auxiliary team and I feel confident that we can safely operate summer camp, albeit modified to support the COVID environment and assuming state and local regulations will allow. We feel strongly about operating camp in 2021 for a number of reasons, some being business-related, but ultimately because if there ever was a summer where kids need camp - this is it! We are excited to build confidence, have fun, and create long-lasting friendships within our summer camp community!”
Bob RojeeThe Wheeler School
For summer 2021, we’re enacting a wide variety of strategies to address the challenges of COVID. Perhaps the most significant change is that we will offer five two-week sessions to help us establish and maintain stable groups among our campers. This is a shift from previous years when we have offered 10 one-week sessions. In addition, Wheeler Summer is planning to implement the same layered approach to risk mitigation strategies used this school year. All campers and staff will wear masks, physical distancing will be enforced, clean and sanitizing practices will be maintained, and of course we will all be outside as much as possible. While we’ll be using a separate summer healthcare staff, we’ll be making sure that our school year healthcare and COVID teams train and prepare to hand off our well defined COVID practices.
From a financial standpoint, we’ve developed a budget that anticipates a 75% reduction in gross revenue (from a typical, non-pandemic year) due to our reduced capacity. And while we’ll try to reduce expenses accordingly, we also know that our planning will require additional expenses, particularly in regard to personnel. We’ve adjusted our seasonal hiring process to help us “right-size” our team based on uncertain enrollment. Currently we are issuing letters of intent, not agreements, to staff that we hope to have working with us. Once enrollment becomes clearer in April, we will issue employment agreements.
Independent schools have experienced a number of personnel and staffing challenges during the pandemic that will inform hiring processes for summer 2021. With higher than normal faculty and staff burnout this year, it will be important for summer directors to begin the hiring process earlier and more creatively. Positions added during the pandemic, like classroom monitors and teacher aides, may be a good source of summer staff. Clear communication with HR departments and the business office is always important, but now more than ever on topics such as benefits, sick leave, overtime and language in agreements. Consider the following:
For most independent schools, the summer is no longer a quiet time on campus. It is important to assess the facilities available for summer use and continued changes to operations required by the pandemic. Beyond seasonal upkeep and planned construction projects, schools may be facing the need to put classrooms back into normal configurations, and take down plexiglass and tents before opening in the fall. This summer season may need to be shortened to allow more time for school year preparations. Communication between facilities and summer programming departments will help ensure the school’s needs are being met. Consider the following:
By Dan O'Neil, Director of Auxiliary Programs, Congressional School
“Summer 2020 was certainly the most challenging of my 15 years in auxiliary programming but hands down the most rewarding, as we not only saw how important and needed the in-person social-emotional needs of both our campers and our staff members were, but also the determination, flexibility and ingenuity of auxiliary program staffs across the country who reinvented their programming in a matter of weeks in an unprecedented time to serve their communities.”
Dan O'NeilCongressional School
Congressional School in Falls Church, Virginia, shifted from offering its traditional one-week day, specialty and travel programs, which typically serve over 2,000 campers, to a modified six-week, cohort model program with an extended day until 5 p.m. Campers were placed in one of 20 small groups of 8-10 campers. Specialized activities like archery, art, outdoor education, sports, ropes and swimming were all modified to ensure program specialists could deliver programming outside and in a safe manner utilizing 5 additional large outdoor tents for activities, snacks and meals. Math and logic as well as a reading zone daily activity were added to help reinforce any gaps from the abrupt closure of schools last spring. We were thrilled to complete our six-week program COVID-free, and with our highest survey results ever —100% of families indicated they would recommend Congressional Camp. On the financial side, this modified program was not able to meet the original budget goal that planned on a 10-week, 2,000+ camper program, but it was nonetheless successful. We turned a small surplus and ensured coverage of existing auxiliary resources and overhead.
For 2021, we expect to move from one six-week session to two four-week sessions with a very similar small group/cohort based program. We are exploring bringing back our specialty based weekly programs in a four-week session.
Just as all schools have enhanced their healthcare capabilities during the school year, so too will healthcare during summer programs require thoughtful development. In most cases, many of this summer’s changes should be consistent with current school COVID procedures and protocols. However, certain aspects of summer programs may differ from the academic year, such as weekly enrollment, different aged participants and younger staff. More than ever in 2021, summer programs leadership will need the continued support of the school to maintain a healthy and safe summer community. Consider the following:
Most schools should reevaluate their marketing strategies for 2021 summer programs. If your program offerings are changing, you may be selling a different product. If your capacity will be significantly reduced, you may not need to invest as much in recruiting new families. And for everyone, the messaging needs to be consistent with and sensitive to the times. Consider the following:
Schools’ advancements in technology to meet the needs of virtual teaching and learning have been made in remarkably short time. A variety of factors will inform the extent to which your summer programs will place demands on your school’s technology department. Will you be leading virtual programs? Will you offer virtual access to in-person programs if requested? Consider the following:
Last summer, over two-thirds of schools reported that their actual gross summer program revenue for 2020 was less than 25% of what they originally budgeted, according to our survey. School leaders may be building 2021-22 school year budgets cautiously while setting tuition with optimism that next school year will be more normal. Approach your summer budgeting with the same caution and optimism. With the potential of lower supply of camp spaces coupled with independent schools’ success in reopening safely, you may see an increase in demand for those spots. Consider the following in financial projections:
It’s important for independent schools to recognize that even though the pandemic will still be with us through much of 2021, the circumstances of this summer will be different than 2020. Leaders in the summer programming field are optimistic about their ability to offer in-person programming. Additional risk mitigation strategies will be available, including more affordable and accessible testing. We’ll also see an increasing percentage of our faculty and staff vaccinated, while having the benefit of the accumulated knowledge of school operations in creating and maintaining a modified, safe campus environment. We believe independent school summer programs can again become a significant resource to their communities and source of strength to their schools. After what has been a challenging school year, modified in-person experiences will provide our students and campers with much needed opportunities for play, social engagement and personal growth.
Download SPARC’s interactive summer programs checklist.
Download the SPARC survey on the pandemic’s impact on auxiliary programs in 2020.
Operating Guidance for Independent School Pandemic Management (eBook, Aug 2020)
Building Alternative Revenue Sources: A Financial Necessity (webinar recording, Dec 2020)
Data-Informed Auxiliary Programs (Sep/Oct 2019)
Extended Day, Extending the Brand (Mar/Apr 2019)
Safety & Security: Are Your Auxiliary Programs Prepared for an Emergency? (Mar/Apr 2019)
5 Steps to Building a Successful Auxiliary Program (web-only 2018)
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