“Sitting at my computer, at the ready. It feels like I’m trying to book Glastonbury tickets,” said one of my school mum friends last week. Except the event for which she had set her phone alarm was not the notoriously competitive scramble for festival passes, but the fight to win a place for her primary-aged child at a local summer holiday camp.
The club she was hoping would provide her with vacation childcare was one of those which, to her immense relief, is still operating during the six-week school break, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Based in a primary school in the North London borough of Enfield, the activity club in question plans to divide the children attending into bubbles of 15. Places will be more limited than usual, to enable the safety guidelines to be properly followed. Among a long list of other Covid-inspired rules, there will be strictly no high-fiving. Just as Glastonbury does, the camp booked up immediately.
Its popularity was hardly surprising, given that a significant number of summer holiday clubs and camps nationwide are suspending operations this summer. Ultimate Activity Camps, which usually runs holiday programmes for children at more than 40 locations around the country, is among those that won’t be doing business. In an update on its website last week, organisers explained: “The key protective measures guidance has not been released, so we still have no idea what measures or framework within which we would need to operate so cannot move forward with preparations.” Months of work in advance is required for the organisation of their camps. The recruitment, assessment, vetting and training of staff takes time, as does the requisite risk assessment work.
“Without guidance on how we must operate, we do not know how many staff we need, what protective measures... need to be in place, new procedures for staff and crucially whether our host schools would let us use their facilities under this guidance,” the update continued. “...we simply cannot prepare without this guidance.”
Barracudas, which usually operates its activity day camps at 48 locations around the UK, has also had to cancel its summer programme this year. A message on its website tells parents: “While there has been some further relaxation in overall restrictions from the Government, there are still no guidelines available for Out of School providers to reopen this summer. Providers do not know what capacity will be allowed, if ‘bubbles’ will have to be maintained, whether children from different schools can mix, indeed the extent of any measures that will be required to make the environment Covid-secure.”
Again, they say that although updated guidance is likely to be available soon, they cannot mobilise their operation in only two or three weeks. “We hope you understand and are able to find some childcare this summer,” the message to frantic parents adds.
We appreciate that by cancelling the camps this summer it will leave parents with childcare issues and we can reassure you that this is not a decision we have taken lightly. You can find more information as to why we cancelled here - https://t.co/eE2DlOKjXN— ☀️ Barracudas Activity Day Camps ☀️ (@barracudascamps) June 17, 2020
But for many of us, this will be far less straightforward than it sounds. Summer holiday childcare is difficult to manage at the best of times: in any given year, parents will find themselves stitching together a patchwork of solutions, with a week of summer camp here, a week with the grandparents there, some annual leave for another week or two, and so on. School mum friends, childminders, neighbours and others will be roped in on an ad hoc basis.
This year, however, the challenge is exponentially greater: how safe can we feel in farming our children out hither and thither when Covid potentially lurks in any home or community hall? And how easy will it be to find formal childcare when so many providers are closed?
From July 4, the latest Government rules will at least allow for grandparents to start helping out again, since groups of up to two households will be able to meet indoors, and overnight stays with members of one other household will no longer be forbidden. But how willing will parents be to ask grandparents to take on the childcare, when those of grandparental age are among the most likely to fare badly if they contract the virus? Those whose own parents are elderly and/or in the vulnerable category may not want to take the risk.
Childminders, meanwhile, were permitted to reopen from June 1, but many have decided not to yet. In at least one local authority in London, more than half of registered childminders are still not taking children back, for a variety of reasons, including having a member of the household who is shielding, and the need to look after their own children. A proportion of those that have reopened are taking fewer children than usual.
So what solutions are there to the pending summer childcare crunch? Nannies are permitted to work, according to guidelines issued on May 1, while a firm called Student Nannies offers what is billed as “flexible, on-demand support from top university students.” Parents can book by the hour for online learning sessions, childcare and home-schooling help. Given the support is not delivered in person, the added bonus of this £10 per hour service is that total social distancing is, naturally, guaranteed.
New rules permitting indoor gatherings of two households also allow for more informal arrangements: childcare “swaps” with another family could provide a fallback for some, with parents taking turns to help each other out. And there may well be more local babysitters looking for work than usual, given the number of young people who will struggle to find other summer jobs in the current economic climate. With festivals cancelled and travel plans looking uncertain, university students and sixth formers will most likely be kicking around their parents’ houses more than during the average pre-Covid summer. Could their loose end be a desperate local parent’s opportunity?
For those seeking something more structured (and less likely to result in their children watching Netflix all day), some summer camps around the country do still plan to go ahead. Camp Beaumont, which operates 18 schemes around London and beyond, says it is “absolutely committed and prepared” to run its camps this summer. Although, in a message on the camp’s website, executive director Jof Gaughan does note: “Frustratingly, there is some conflicting guidance in circulation and an update from the Department for Education is long overdue.”
XUK Camps also says it is hoping to proceed and is “starting to formulate more detailed Covid plans,” such as working to smaller capacities. “None of these can be finalised or publicised until the Government have announced what restrictions they intend for this summer,” they add.
#xukcamps are doing everything possible to make summer 2020 happen for our day camp parents. But we are waiting for Boris and his cabinet to allow ofsted registered summer camps. Anyone that can help please do. Parents need us and other providers to be open! https://t.co/jBVqI481kG— XUK Camps (@xukcamps) June 25, 2020
Childcare.co.uk, an online social networking platform for parents, childcare providers and private tutors, says it has seen unprecedented demand from parents over the past week, as the long vacation period looms. Searches for nannies on the site are up over 500 per cent compared to last year, while childminders are also experiencing significantly higher demand than usual. "The shortage of supply and increase in demand is leaving many parents stressed and worried about the summer,” says Richard Conway, Childcare.co.uk’s chief executive and founder, who adds that increasingly parents are turning to private tutors, often for several days a week. “This enables the tutor to both help the child catch up on their missed school work and also provides daytime childcare while the parents are at work."
Finally, if all else fails, there’s always the nuclear option: accepting defeat and, if employers (and family finances) permit it, taking some unpaid leave. Either way, there’s no doubt that millions of struggling parents will be praying that when autumn term rolls around, their children can return to five days a week in the classroom; socially distanced or otherwise.