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Summer camps in limbo as families await word, refunds during coronavirus outbreak

Karen Dybis
Special to Detroit Free Press
Nikki Little of Huntington Woods and her husband Mike Little pose for a photo in their home as their twin 7-year-old sons Evan Little and Nolan Little stand outside on Thursday, April 2, 2020. The family is disappointed that their twin 7-year-old sons may not get to experience summer camp this year due to the coronavirus outbreak. Thousands of families are in limbo as camp programmers figure out whether they can still plan camps this summer.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest statewide school closure news.  

Mike and Nikki Little of Huntington Woods anticipated a fun summer for their twin sons, 7-year-old first graders Nolan and Evan. They had blossomed as students, Nikki Little said, and the family was looking forward to the boys joining the city's popular parks and recreation day camp. 

Now, that anticipation has turned into a wait-and-see game as the Littles wonder if camp will be cancelled and, if so, when deposit refunds will be issued.

“We are fortunate that we can be patient if we don’t get a refund in the next few weeks,” said Nikki Little, vice president of strategy at public relations firm Franco. “I am sad for what my kids are going to miss out on. They’re both learning so much and growing so quickly (but) we’ve got to wait it out, literally, day by day and hour by hour.”

(left to right) Mike Little of Huntington Woods poses for a photo on the front porch of his home with his son, Evan Little, wife Nikki Little, and son Nolan Little on Thursday, April 2, 2020. The family is disappointed that their twin 7-year-old sons may not get to experience summer camp this year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

All across metro Detroit, parents, already juggling homeschooling and job insecurity after the coronavirus reached Michigan in March, are now facing potentially blank calendars this summer as day camps and overnight camps decide whether they will shutter this year. 

Plus, there's the question of whether hefty deposits will be refunded. And when.

More:Michigan ends in-person school year for K-12 students due to coronavirus

At least one overnight camp in Michigan, plus popular local day camps offered through schools and other organizations, said they understand the uncertainty because they, too, are parents or may be facing similar financial realities.

They say they are communicating often with parents through email, Facebook posts or website updates and are working to determine whether full refunds are possible, if cancelations occur, and when they could be issued.  

SpringHill Camps, a non-profit Christian camp and retreat ministry with locations in Michigan and Indiana, is preparing for camp to be open.

“Our posture has been that we are planning summer camps until the day that we can’t,” following the state’s mandates for social distancing and non-essential businesses, said SpringHill President Michael Perry. “If we have to postpone opening, we can respond quickly. If we’re free to open camp, we’re going to do that for kids and families.”

SpringHill typically has an estimated 10,000 kids attend its residential or overnight camps, Perry said, and another 18,000 will attend its day camps throughout the summer months. Its camps start June 1 in Indiana and around mid-June in Michigan, he added. However, planning for these camps takes the entire year, so he has staff in place for if and when these camps can take place. Its refund policy will kick in as the camp has to cancel or people need to cancel their individual participation. 

At Oakland Yard Athletics, owner Marty Greenspan said he has spent days alone in his office, because of social distancing, preparing refunds for sports leagues and tournaments. He hasn’t started the refunds on the estimated 2,000 kids and families who made deposits on summer camps, yet, as he is still hopeful camps will happen.

He also is worried for all of the other events, such as wedding and bar mitzvahs, that families hold at his Waterford Township facilities. 

Former and current students from the Oakland Yard Athletics' Private Pilot Camp, Kristen Angileri, 15, of Franklin, Mich., left in back, and Jacob Minkus, 13, of Farmington Hills, Mich., right in front, pose for their portraits next to a Cessna 172 at the Oakland County Airport's Pontiac Flight Service building June 21, 2006.

“We always give 100 percent refunds. Invariably, parents have said ‘thank you’ and that they’ll be back as soon we reopen,” Greenspan said. “We’re doing that for everything. If you’re not satisfied with any part of our business, we do a refund. We find you get a lot more good out of it if you make people happy. … We’ve been around for more than 25 years now, and we know we’re going to last through this, too.” 

However, turnaround expert Patrick M. O’Keefe, Founder and CEO of O’Keefe Consulting in Bloomfield Hills, said many parents may not be able to afford luxuries such as summer camp when the economic tidal wave that is coronavirus settles. 

More:1 out of 3 Michigan restaurants might not survive coronavirus crisis

“This is depleting savings accounts and cash resources. Discretionary items like camps and parties are definitely going to get deferred. People just aren’t going to be spending at the same levels they were,” O’Keefe said. 

An issue for local schools, too

Local school districts are facing similar quandaries with summer camps and postponed field trips that were to happen before this school year ended.

Late Thursday morning, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Michigan public school students would not return to classrooms this school year. That may create more questions about whether summer programs held at public school property will still happen.  

Summer camp programs are in limbo. At Oakland Schools Technical Campuses, which holds various summer camp programming, children in 2008 stir chocolate while learning to cook. (ANDRE J.JACKSON/ Detroit Free Press)

At Oakland Schools Technical Campuses, which provides practical career technical education to high school students, refunds will be offered if summer programming does not take place, said Dean Paul Galbenski. He and his staff had been planning summer camps for some 400 middle-school students, in topics including STEM and cybersecurity. 

“We’re taking our directives week by week and looking at the bigger picture,” Galbenski said before Gov. Whitmer's closure announcement. “Like our parents, we have so many unanswered questions. But the virus dictates everything that’s going on here.”

Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills also is working with state, national and international leaders in regard to whether its students are safe to travel or whether the school will hold its annual summer camps, said Headmaster Glen Shilling.

"We canceled several domestic and international trips to ‘sister schools’ around the world due to the novel coronavirus,” Shilling said. Thankfully, refunds will be available because “we require 'trip insurance' due to previous experiences dating back to the early 2000s." 

Jessica Stilger, director of communications for Berkley Schools, said the district cancelled international Spring Break trips ahead of the full school closures and international travel bans.

More:Returning to classrooms this school year 'very unlikely,' Whitmer says

“We had two trips going to Italy and one to England. When they were cancelled, Italy was at a CDC Level 3. Our trips were arranged through an outside vendor and the parent agreements were with that company, although our staff members were the leads on the trips,” Stilger said. “All our parents were offered vouchers from the company to apply the money spent to a future trip minus their enrollment deposit and insurance fees.”

Prior to Gov. Whitmer's announcement Thursday closing schools for the rest of the school year, the Berkley district also had to cancel one trip to Washington DC for 8th grade students and postpone another. 

The Capitol is framed amid blooming cherry trees in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019.

“Parents of the cancelled trip will be able to receive a refund through the travel company for 75% of the trip’s cost — this information was communicated to them directly by our school principal,” Stilger said. “The postponed trip is temporarily postponed and a decision on whether the trip will run will be made at a future date. The principal has also communicated this change in plan to our school families."

Stilger said the decisions to cancel and/or postpone are made for the safety of students and in accordance with the CDC's recommendation for no large gatherings.

“As far as any additional future trips, a decision will be made once we know more about our return to school. With the future uncertain as to when school will resume, we are hoping all vendors offer our families refunds since we are in unprecedented times,” Stilger said before Thursday's announcement. 

Mary Gustafson, director of the Huntington Woods Recreation Department, said she is empathetic to families, as well as students who were going to work at the city's summer camp and latchkey programs. 

Refunds will be available to families such as the Littles if the programs are cancelled, Gustafson said.

The city has not yet talked about the financial impact on the overall budget if these camp-related funds are not available; those discussions will take place if there are cancelations, she added.

Summer programming in the city is a rite of passage that everyone looks forward, she said. 

Burton Community Park in Huntington Woods is the main location for the Huntington Woods Recreation Department's annual summer camp program for kids. The park also serves Burton Elementary School.

“We know it affects so many people,” Gustafson said. “We want them to know we haven’t forgotten about them.

“As of right now, we’re still looking at going ahead until we’re told otherwise. But we will follow the county and state requirements in terms of closing," Gustafson said. "What’s most important is the health of our citizens."

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