Impact Series

How Pacific Science Middle ran protected, profitable summer season camps — in-person — regardless of COVID-19

COVID-19 doesn’t prevent a chem lab camper from getting a little messy. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

Seattle’s Pacific Science Center took its own messages about innovation and ingenuity to heart this summer and created a slate of camps for kids in the time of COVID-19, conducted not just remotely but also in-person.

The nonprofit just wrapped up 10 weeks of camps, with nearly 1,500 kids participating at the spacious Seattle campus and three partner locations, and another 1,500 kids enrolled in the Science Center’s virtual camps, including students from out of state. In a year when the pandemic dashed many cherished summer plans, the camps were a welcome reprieve.

“We heard very clearly from the adults that this was not only needed, but a lifesaver for some,” said Diana Johns, vice president of exhibits, science engagement and outreach for the center.

The in-person camps followed state safety guidelines, which meant creating pods of nine kids maximum and one counselor, staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks. The kids came and went from camp through multiple entrances at the center to limit contact, and pods had designated bathrooms.

A dissection lab camper. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

There were no reported incidents of novel coronavirus spread among camp educators or kids, who attended the week-long camps for up to seven hours a day.

There has been significant concern and debate about the whether and how to bring kids safely together for school and camps, with most students in Washington returning to entirely or partially remote classes this fall. While the Science Center program has some unique features, it demonstrated that in-person instruction for kindergarten to eighth-grade kids can work, but there are challenges to manage.

“The hard thing is you’re asking kids not to be so ‘kiddie’ — you’re asking them not to touch each other and keep this thing on your face, which is hard for young kids in particular,” Johns said. But at the same time, she added, “what was clear was how much it meant for those kids to be with other kids.”

That was the case for Elissa Fernandez and her three sons. The boys, age 8, 12 and 14, were offered spots in the virtual sessions, but the family doesn’t have internet access at their home in Burien, south of Seattle. She asked her kids if they were game for going in person.

“They haven’t really been out since COVID started. I wasn’t sure they’d be able to wear a mask,” Fernandez said. The boys jumped at the chance and while they have some sensory issues, the masks worked fine for them. “I was really concerned,” she said, “but it was a non-issue.”

Fernandez’s 12-year-old son enrolled in the underwater machines camp and was thrilled to build a submarine. They were the only camps her kids went to this year; their usual swim team and sports camps were all cancelled.

Wild ocean adventures was one of the camps offered for kindergarten and first-grade campers. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

The Science Center offered most of its usual camp lineup, including zombie apocalypse, myth busting, spy certification and kitchen science.

With roughly 3,000 summer campers, participation was down by about 2,500 kids compared to a normal year — which is arguably still impressive given the unprecedented nature of the situation.

The organization provided 160 donor-supported scholarships to campers, a sizeable increase from last year. It’s receiving $265,000 of support from the federal CARES Act, as granted through King County, which will cover about a month of costs for camping staff. The nonprofit is still running the numbers to see how the summer penciled out overall.

The Science Center has been struggling for years to find a stable fiscal footing, thanks in part to steep cuts in government funding beginning more than a decade ago. CEO Will Daugherty took over in 2015 and has implemented an entrepreneurial approach to operations, offering new programming for kids and adults to boost attendance and support.

The nonprofit closed to visitors in mid March and has laid off more than 300 workers. Some employees returned for the summer, but the staff will contract again as the camps end. The center will continue adding online videos and activities through its Curiosity at Home program.

These superheroes campers stayed 6 feet apart and wore masks to stay safe. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

Now the Science Center is figuring out what fall will bring and how it can continue supporting the community. Plans could include offering virtual field trips; before- or after-school care; and hosting students onsite who are doing remote learning and need support connecting to instruction, taking breaks and managing their days, with the possibility of providing science lessons as well. The nonprofit is talking to Seattle Public Schools and other districts to see what role it could play.

A growing concern around remote education is the creation of microschools or pandemic pods to help kids and families navigate online school. More affluent families have an easier time arranging and paying for microschools, leaving lower-income students less supported and at a disadvantage. Education experts have called for the formation of community-based programs along the lines of what the Science Center is considering.

“The goal,” said Johns, “is constantly trying to do as much as we can with pretty constrained resources at this point.”

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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