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The High Cost of Summer Break

Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo

I have a case of summer nostalgia. I get it every year about this time. As a child of the 70s, I remember three-month summer vacations filled with seemingly countless hours of lying around doing nothing. I think of when I was 7, the same age my daughter is now. We had an above-ground pool in which my mom, brother and I spent hours splashing around or floating lazily on rafts. Sometimes we’d have friends over, or go to one of their houses, or we’d play hide and seek in the neighborhood, or ride our bikes in the cul-de-sac where we lived. We’d stay outside all day, and then when the sun went down, we’d catch fireflies in the backyard.

It sounds like an idyllic cliché, something I made up from everyone’s fantasy of summer, but that really was my life at age 7.

I truly wish I could give my daughter that kind of summer. But I, like the majority of parents today, work full time. Fortunately, we have her enrolled for the summer at a daycare center, the same place she attended preschool and pre-K. It’s comparatively affordable, as summer child care goes, it’s small, it’s familiar to her, and the entire staff know us and love her dearly, as we do them. We’re so lucky to have them. She’s doing art projects, going on field trips, having water fights with friends, reading, and getting lots of playtime. They feed her two snacks a day and are open until 6 p.m. We count our blessings every day to have found them.

Nonetheless, this two-month summer break is expensive for us. Whereas after-school care for an entire month during the school year costs us about $150-$200 per month, this summer’s costs are nearly triple that. Add to that the fact that we decided to mix it up for her a bit and enroll her in a one-week theater camp this July, which costs about 30 percent more for that week than a week at her daycare, and we’re looking at July’s outlay for child care being more than 10 percent of our household income for the month. And we’re some of the lucky ones.

I shudder to think what we’d do without this daycare. Each spring I get into my head that we’ll enroll our daughter in a bunch of fun novelty day camps. But then I look around at what’s out there and wonder who these people are who can do them. As part of my own research project, I checked out schedules for 12 local summer day camps (one with two summer programs), most of them one week long per camp or per session, and found that six of them—50 percent—begin at 9 a.m. (while the average workday starts at 8 a.m.) and end before or right at 5 p.m. (while the average employee doesn’t even get off work until 5 p.m.). Five of them ended at 4 p.m. or earlier. One of them only runs for three days in the middle of the week.

In fact, most camps seem designed mainly to give stay-at-home parents a bit of a break, not to affordably keep kids engaged, fed, and cared for full time during a two-month summer, at hours that accommodate the typical working parent. Meanwhile, the New York Times tells us that only a little more than a quarter of American families actually have a parent at home to be with kids during those summer days.

And let’s look at that word “affordably,” shall we? My unscientific online research of 12 programs revealed to me that weekly summer day camp costs ranged from $95 (a week of mornings only at Arts for All) to $300 (one of Rocksport Climbing’s sessions; others are $250), with the average being $180 per week.

Multiply that average by four weeks, and you’re looking at $720 per month, or $1,440 for a two-month summer break, roughly.

So follow along with me here as I do the math…

According to Payscale.com, the average monthly salary in Reno, NV is $4,763. So we’re talking about nearly one-third of an average monthly salary going toward child care costs during summer.

Did you know that in Nevada, the annual cost of child care is more than a year of college tuition?! And I’m not talking about a little bit—I’m talking about thousands of dollars more than the average in-state college tuition.

But let’s get back to summer camps. All this presumes that you actually can arrange to have someone drop off your child at 9 a.m. each morning while you’re at work, or pick that child up from camp before 5 p.m., when you leave work. Or that you have made special arrangements with your employer to arrive late or leave early or bring your child with you to work or something.

And that covers one week of care. What about the other seven weeks? Do you have to do this juggling act for all of them?

Some camps, including a one-day swim camp at a local swim school, run only four or five hours and cost $89.

I mean, who can do that?

Not to mention the difficulty of getting kids into camp. Sign-ups begin while snow is still falling. Many camps only have spots for 20 or fewer kids per session. Some programs only have four week-long sessions per summer, or fewer than that. The crunch to get into a camp is enough to keep you sleepless all spring. My casual research into local camps revealed that the majority are closed to new enrollments and many have long wait lists. Getting into one is a lot like trying to get concert tickets. And the work involved in cobbling together a full two months of week-long camps so that they synchronize to fill the summer is astounding and not possible for most parents.

But based on what I’ve seen, it’s clear that many changes need to happen. Nevada ranks 11th in the nation for its child care costs as a percentage of median family income. We need a lot more programs to address the summer child care, during that long spell of time when kids lose much of the last school year’s learning. A one-day or one-week camp here is a great way to mix things up, but it should be more affordable, and there should be a lot more options than two or three sessions per summer.

And the programs already offering great camps should be taking a look at their hours, and working harder to meet the needs of working parents. A 9 a.m. drop-off or 4 p.m. pick-up simple aren’t feasible for most parents.

I should note that summer day camps are eligible for the IRS’s Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for childcare costs, for children under 13. So that helps, but it doesn’t apply until next April.

I also acknowledge that there are several wonderful daycare centers that care for school-aged children during breaks, ours included, and the cities of Reno and Sparks both offer child care all summer at times and prices that are more accommodating to working parents. Without them, we’d be in real trouble.

But the benefits of summer camps—building confidence, establishing or enhancing a set of valuable skills under the guidance of experts, introducing kids to new friends, and furthering children’s interests in specific subject areas—shouldn’t be limited to kids who have stay-at-home parents or lots of money.

After all, it is summer. It might also be nice to afford a vacation or two… or at least a few trips to get ice cream.

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About Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina
Jessica Santina’s love for writing started the summer when she was 11. She and her father created their own hand-bound book of poetry that they’d written together, which they called “Pop & Kid: Collected Writings.” It’s this love of the written word that fuels Jessica’s business today as a freelance writer, editor and university instructor, as well as spending countless hours sharing beloved books with four-year-old daughter, Olivia. When she has a few minutes to herself – a rare gem – Jessica loves to cook, read chick-lit novels, watch cooking shows, and take long, leisurely walks that allow her to come up with blog ideas. Check out her blog for words of wisdom on writing and more.

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