Officials say activities at the YMCA will serve thousands of youngsters if enough staff can be hired. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Students in an after-school community hub move quickly through a social circle as they play a game at the Mission YMCA on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Officials say activities at the YMCA will serve thousands of youngsters if enough staff can be hired. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner) Students in an after-school community hub move quickly through a social circle as they play a game at the Mission YMCA on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Parents scramble for ‘Summer Together’ spaces

City program offering free camps sees high demand, confusion over enrollment

A great deal of hope has been placed on the summer as a way to recoup learning loss for kids, restore social connections and provide parental relief after a grueling year.

With the help of a $25 million philanthropic donation, elected officials, city departments and community organizations have rallied behind an effort known as Summer Together that will provide free in-person summer programming, academic and recreational, to some 20,000 San Francisco public school students, with a focus on recovery.

Within half an hour of priority registration opening on Wednesday, however, slots had filled up.

Parents of about 8,200 kids had previously indicated interest to the Recreation and Park Department, which expects to serve up to 1,300 children depending how many slots each sign up for. Priority was given to students who live in public housing, RVs, foster care, or single residency occupancy units; who are experiencing homelessness; who have disabilities; or who are English language learners.

“The level of demand was no surprise — it’s high even under normal circumstances,” said Tamara Aparton, a Rec and Park spokesperson, in an email. “It’s really important to make sure [priority students] have a spot in summer programming even if it’s not with us.”

Another 600 spots will be available for registration on Saturday, open to all San Francisco Unified School District families who filled out the interest form. The Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families will reach out to those same families to offer a chance to sign up for about 3,000 priority slots to attend free, private camp slots. SFUSD is offering about 10,000 slots as well.

Families that didn’t fill out the interest form will have to try during general enrollment. If the chance is missed again, they must hope for the best on the waiting list, try for the virtual camps, fall back on the San Francisco Public Library reading program, or consider paying for private camps.

Amadis Velez found the rollout “frustrating” for requiring SFUSD families to fill out an interest form that didn’t strike many as mandatory in order to qualify for early registration. The SFUSD teacher and his wife are usually ready on the dot to sign their third-grader up for summer camp when registration is ready and thought Summer Together was a good opportunity.

Velez was “shocked” to find out he will have to wait until general enrollment to register for in-demand programming intended to prioritize children like his. The non-straightforward nature of the process, starting with the title “interest form,” was a mistake, he said.

“I guarantee you there’s so many parents just like us,” said Velez, an SFUSD teacher. “The people who don’t have resources or wherewithal to fill out an unclear requirement are not going to have access to the Summer Together program. My sense is that Latino and African American parents are going to be left behind.”

After learning from last summer, DCYF director Maria Su said they allowed community-based organizations — who have direct relationships with families — to enroll children themselves. As coronavirus cases drop and vaccines made accessible, there are also more children allowed in a cohort than last summer.

But with public health constraints still in place and more than twice the public school students than the program can accommodate, Summer Together partners knew demand would ultimately exceed supply.

“At the end of the day, we will have some families who will be disappointed,” Su said last week. “I would just ask for families to be patient with us as we build this brand-new initiative. We want to make it as easy as possible for families and we know it’s complicated.”

At least some parents benefited from the changes in the enrollment process.

Teresa Rondone, mother of a first-grader at Monroe Elementary School, was able to secure a slot on Thursday with the help of the Mission YMCA, where her 7-year-old is in a community hub. Staff not only frequently shared updates on Summer Together, but held sessions this week to provide technical assistance that Rondone used to secure spots.

“I would probably be yelling, screaming, running around with my head cut off,” Rondone said of how it would work without the help. “That’s kind of how it was last summer. It was a much smoother process this time around. I was so grateful everything went exactly how it said.”

The YMCA will serve about 2,400 kids in San Francisco this summer if they can hire enough staff, according to child and youth development vice president Marissa Cowan. The organization serves 10,000 kids a day in a typical summer but smaller cohorts and space requirements are still required to maintain safety. Kids must also be enrolled for at least three weeks, removing the option for a one-week program.

Resources from the Summer Together initiative, which were partly put toward wage increases, made a huge difference in retaining childcare staff who have worked nonstop since schools closed.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Cowan. “The benefit of collective impact the city, county, school district and CBOs working together is really coming through and how much communities can benefit from that.”

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