COVID-19 Couldn’t Stop Summer Programs from Supporting Local Youth
In a matter of weeks, SUNY Brockport staples Camp Abilities and SummerLEAP transitioned into remote and virtual programs that provided quality learning opportunities for children in the community.
Every summer, SUNY Brockport hosts a number of programs, including two staples: Camp Abilities and SummerLEAP (Learning Enrichment to Achieve Potential). But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans.
Camp Abilities, an educational sports camp designed for children and teens who have visual impairments, blindness, or deaf-blindness, was gearing up for its 25th year on campus when it became impossible to host the overnight program. But, canceling wasn't an option — no way — not under the direction of Distinguished Service Professor Lauren Lieberman, Camp Abilities founder. Instead, she dreamed up an idea for a virtual camp that would deliver campers modified equipment right to their homes.
SummerLEAP, a project-based learning program part of the region's Summer Learning Collaborative, also needed new plans. SummerLEAP teachers work with K-6 students of the Rochester City School District (RCSD), five days a week for six weeks. The program’s mission is to reinforce skills learned through the academic year and set students up for success in the fall. Director Amy Shema was preparing for its 7th year on Brockport’s campus.
Both Brockport staples overcame challenges on short notice. Both successfully navigated funding issues, embraced Zoom technology, held onto traditions, and maintained opportunities for SUNY Brockport students to develop teaching skillsets. And both found ways to make sure the curriculum was accessible by providing bags stocked with program essentials.
Twenty-five students were safely delivered a gym bag for virtual Camp Abilities. It
was stuffed with modified equipment, such as a bell basketball, soccer ball, soccer
trainer, miniature goal ball, beach ball, guide wire, tether, yoga mat, jump rope,
shot put, discus, and water bottle.
From June 28 to July 4, the campers gathered on Zoom for instruction, activities, events, and more. The virtual lesson plans were designed to mimic traditional camp as much as possible.
Lieberman was optimistic about how virtual camp would turn out. For one thing, kids would have their own equipment to keep. And secondly, “I love that the parents are going to be more involved,” she said.
This year, parents took on the role of videographer, Zoom operator, and one-on-one coach.
“I hadn’t anticipated the amount of parent involvement,” said Leah Watkins, parent of 13-year-old camper Elora Watkins. Every other year, she saw “tiny bits” or “highlights” when her daughter showed off her new skills on the last day, Leah Watkins said. But this year, Mom saw it all. She watched how her daughter's soccer skills developed from her morning sessions to the afternoon. “Getting to see that development and growth is really cool,” she said.
“It’s really fun to work with my mom,” said Elora Watkins, who felt that camp was "different" this year.
Her favorite events, aquatics, gymnastics, and paddle boarding, weren't available. So, she chose to try something new and specialized in soccer. Now, she says, “I really like soccer.”
Peter Rifenburg, a junior in the adapted physical education concentration at SUNY Brockport, was the assistant lead for the camp's Blue team. The roles of him and other coaches remained mostly the same. They oversaw athletes and how they performed — this time through a screen.
Rifenburg noticed differences when it came to camp traditions or “energizers,” activities the coaches engage kids in throughout the day in order to build excitement. According to Rifenburg, coaches typically lose their voice. But this year, he got to keep his.
The Camp Abilities team introduced new events, like an open mic night, trivia, and a virtual escape room. Elora Watkins's favorite was the spa night. “I kind of want to do it more often,” she said. “All the choice activities have been really fun."
“I feel like this is the best possible outcome,” said Rifenburg. He added that Camp Abilities staff and volunteers are “some of the hardest working people,” who pulled off virtual camp on short notice.
COVID-19 wasn’t the first challenge.
“Summer learning programs were already impacted by a combination of losing Rochester City School District funds due to their budget crisis and a shift in priority areas by local funders. Once COVID-19 hit, we knew that in-person programming was not going to be a safe option,” said Shema. But the Summer Learning Collaborative provided a means to support the activities across seven local summer enrichment programs, including Brockport's.
Some elements of SummerLEAP had to change, such as meals in the dining hall and swimming. Because of that, Assistant Director Grace Kelly '18/'21 said it was important that the team kept the “hallmarks of the program,” such as high-energy events, singing the SummerLEAP song, and gathering all the students together for an opportunity to share what they’ve learned.
The team tried new things, too, including a pajama party over Zoom.
“We’re like a SummerLEAP family,” Kelly said. Every teacher and each of the 50 students in this year's program has been with SummerLEAP before. As a means of offsetting the difficulties and inconsistency of the school year, organizers decided to pair the students with familiar educators.
Students met with teachers over Zoom meetings for one hour a day and had enrichment opportunities in art, music, and health & wellness. The curriculum was themed and separated by grade level. Some grades were focused on Black leaders in STEM, others on Cesar Chavez. The third-graders even made rockets at home.
“We have a little classroom community, even though it’s virtual,” said SummerLEAP instructor Cassie Wicker '19. She’s been teaching about unity, historic protestors, and social justice. “I’ve gotten to focus on building a culturally relevant curriculum and culturally responsive teaching,” she said.
“Each week, students receive a bag of supplies to complete projects that they share during the daily Zoom meetings. Students also receive bags of food so that they are eating healthy meals at home, just as they would at an in-person program,” said Shema.
SummerLEAP's data analyst Reed Sanchez '18/'20 said when she makes a drop-off, “the parents say they love what we’re doing.” The project learning kits reach 643 students who are part of any of the Summer Learning Collaborative programs.
“It is a vital program in the community. Not only does it provide academic, socio-emotional, and enrichment opportunities for RCSD students, SummerLEAP serves as an outreach program for families, an incubator for best practices for teachers, and an opportunity for teacher candidates to work with mentor teachers in non-traditional learning environments,” Shema explained.
When Brockport alumni, undergraduate students, and graduate students participate in SummerLEAP, they are adding to the longevity of the program and success of the students, Kelly explained.
“What we’re doing is working,” Sanchez said.