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Planning for 2021 Summer Programs

By Net Assets posted 01-25-2021 04:42 PM


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As the COVID-19 pandemic promises to dissipate somewhat but not yet disappear, this summer will be yet another novel experience for independent schools, different from all the summers before. Consider these best practices for safe and successful programming.

By Nat Saltonstall, SPARC, and Karen McCann McClelland, Sidwell Friends School

Feature image: A camper participates in a rope activity at Congressional School's summer camp program.

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.

Goal Setting

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.

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.

Team Player, Team Planner

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.

Programs and Activities

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:

  • Design each program to be as flexible as possible, allowing for adjustments and modifications as needed.
  • Determine a modified capacity that allows for de-densification of summer community with flexibility to expand if health situation allows.
  • Develop a cohort plan that clarifies the grouping structure of campers and limits mixing accordingly.
  • Determine which summer program activities may not be possible or need to be modified.
  • Rebrand programs/activities as necessary to differentiate between normal and modified programs (e.g., if you are offering a more traditional day camp with cohorts instead of intermixed groups focused on specialty workshops, use different names for offerings than you would normally.)
  • Consider whether to offer programs only for your school’s students versus the greater community

Policies and Procedures

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:

  • Timing: Determine an adjusted launch date for summer registration and communicate to summer families.
    • Early bird or discounted registration?
    • Priority for school families in registering?
  • Policies: Develop any required new policies related to COVID following the school’s lead (i.e., release forms, exclusion policies, visitor policies, etc.) and make evident to summer families
  • Refunds: Decide modifications, if any, to refund policies in relation to COVID-related absence, withdrawal, or required quarantine.

Summer Staff Hiring

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:

  • Contract cautiously — establish the required number of staff to deliver programming based on reduced capacity and modified structure. Recommend that seasonal staff agreements are “at will.”
  • Create a plan for additional staff substitutes that may be needed in response to illness or quarantine.
  • Evaluate needs for additional COVID positions (i.e., aides for the health team, lunch or transitions, equipment cleaning).
  • Develop and disseminate any new staff-oriented policies in relation to COVID (pay for sick leave, quarantining, health screening).
  • Develop and communicate your expectations regarding COVID vaccinations for summer employees. Will they be recommended or required? Consult with HR and legal counsel, and monitor the availability of vaccinations leading up to the summer.

Facility and Operations

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:

  • Campus cleaning: Continue to maintain best practices for campus cleaning that are consistent with school operations.
  • Isolation and quarantine space: Provide a dedicated space for isolation of campers as necessary, separate from the primary healthcare space.
  • Additional supplies: Determine and order any additional required supplies such as signage, cleaning supplies, etc.
  • Communicate and collaborate with relevant departments about the summer calendar:
    • Timing needed to transition from school to summer programs and then back (e.g., removal or installation of plexiglass, classroom configurations, signage, etc.).
    • Capital or special projects that will impact summer program operations.
    • Preparation for fall, which might be different from normal summers.


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:

  • Nursing staff: Consider an increase in summer healthcare staffing to handle the added demands brought on by COVID.
  • COVID response team: Assess whether to utilize your school’s COVID response team to support your summer nursing. If that team is not available, develop a summer version of the team.
  • Screening: Implement daily screening of all campers and staff using the same procedures as school.
  • Additional supplies: Identify and have on hand sufficient quantities of any additional supplies such as masks and other PPE.
  • Contact tracing: Consider modifications, if any, to the school’s existing contact tracing plan with clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
  • COVID testing plan: Monitor ongoing developments in testing, and implement a customized plan for summer. Consider frequent testing for staff, and focus on entry and diagnostic testing for campers.
  • Vaccination plan: Consider potential policies and expectations for vaccinations of summer staff.
  • Department of Health and/or other regulatory bodies that may govern summer programs: Monitor expectations for camps, stay in close contact with the local board of health, and implement any new camp regulations as specified by the state or locality.

Marketing and Communications

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:

  • Collaborate with school communications on pre-season communications for consistent messaging.
  • Create a social media marketing plan sensitive of the current context.
  • Think about developing special 2021 web pages if program offerings are drastically different from normal.
  • Prepare all emails and communications related to COVID in advance of the summer.
  • Follow school policies and ensure that the messaging related to COVID is consistent with policies used by the school throughout the year.
  • Determine the appropriate level of transparency and information provided to the community regarding cases of COVID during the summer.


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:

  • Technology needs: Establish what technology hardware and software will be needed by the summer programs to serve students and families.
  • Tech support: Evaluate the level of support required from the director of academic technology and structure the support accordingly.
  • Seasonal staff training: Evaluate the need to provide additional trainings to educate seasonal staff in the use of certain technology.
  • Storage and safety of hardware: For any classroom equipment that won't be used this summer, develop a plan for the safe storage and limited access.
  • Zoom accounts: Determine needs for staff as well as individual accounts for summer students.

Finance and Budget

Approach your summer budgeting with both 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 spots.

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:

  • Develop multiple budget scenarios based on different levels of potential operation.
  • Create models that project different levels of enrollment.
  • Set 2021 fees thoughtfully, factoring in the many variables of increased expenses, market sensitivity, demand, and where you want to position your program fees relative to peers and competition.
  • Build in COVID expenses using estimates from school year expenses — staffing, PPE, cleaning, etc.
  • Carefully consider appropriate staffing levels, as this is your greatest expense. Some positions may be eliminated while others might need to be added, such as additional substitutes.
  • Revisit contracts with vendors and partner programs.

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.

Nat Saltonstall is the executive director of SPARC, the Summer Programs and Auxiliary Revenue Collaborative. SPARC supports independent schools in maximizing their auxiliary program potential by offering professional development experiences throughout the year, current best practices and benchmarking data and specialized advisory services
Karen McCann McClelland is the director of auxiliary programs at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and a member of SPARC’s Advisory Board. Praise Hall, auxiliary fellow at Sidwell Friends School, also contributed to this article.


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