When it comes to choosing a summer program for your child, there are a number of boxes most families are looking to check off. Will it be fun? Will my child learn something new? Will they be happy and make friends?
All of these are great questions to ask. Standards for health and safety at summer programs vary wildly and there are programs out there that will tell you that their highest priority is the health and safety of students. It’s important to ascertain that the talk matches the doing. Try to talk with someone who will be on the ground during the summer and can actually speak to what happens rather than reading from a script.
Here are the questions you should be asking.
What are the industry standards around supervision and safety for summer programs?
There really aren't any. While many states offer a hodgepodge of regulations, some states provide no standards at all. Even in states where there are regulations, it’s not unusual that summer programs on college and university campuses don’t comply or are not required to do so. It’s also not unusual for a college or university (or other entities) to “run” the program in name, meaning the classroom-based instruction, and then farm out most everything else — supervision of staff, students, dormitories, trips, medical care, student activities, and hiring of non-classroom staff and their training — to a private third party contractor. The transaction is much the same as a university hiring a food service provider, except these third parties are in charge of your child for the vast majority of each day. Some colleges, universities, and privately run programs are up front about this kind of arrangement. Many more are not. You should ask.
What does staff-to-student ratio really mean?
For a residential program, it’s important to find out how many staff members actually live on campus with responsibility for supervising students. It takes a village to run these programs, and dining hall and custodial staff play critical roles, but they aren’t there to supervise students. Nor, oftentimes, are instructors — many of whom do not live on campus. For those that do, it’s important to find out if they’ve simply been given housing as part of their compensation or if they are actually trained and responsible for overseeing students outside of class. It’s easy to make the ratio look good. It’s another thing altogether for it to be good. You should ask.
What kind of medical care is available on campus?
A handful of residential programs maintain a health center on campus staffed by registered nurses around the clock, seven days a week. This is rarer than you would think, primarily because it’s costly and cumbersome to do. Without it, students and staff are left to make health and welfare decisions often without good advice. It also means a lot of drugs — prescription and over the counter — are floating around a program because they are not regulated by trained medical care providers. Some programs advertise that there is a nurse or a doctor “on call.” But this often means calling an urgent care clinic or a hospital hotline. Visits to see a health care provider, whether a physician or nurse, often mean a visit to an urgent care clinic in a mall or drugstore.
Without a health center on campus, it becomes almost impossible to reasonably care for sick children or to isolate them should they not be around other children. Remember the summer when swine flu swept through the country and the Center for Disease Control recommended infected people stay away from others for 10 days? Hard to do when you aren’t set up for this kind of emergency, which unfortunately is the kind of thing that isn’t as rare as you’d imagine. So ask.
And speaking of emergencies, what really can happen?
A lot, which is why it’s important to train and plan. It’s one thing as a parent to respond to a situation with two or three children you know. It’s another to be making decisions for 200, 600, or 1,000+ young people you don’t know and respond at scale. This kind of preparedness only comes with careful planning, lots of training (including onsite simulations), and strong supervision. Asking about a track record is good, but someone telling you they’ve never had a fire doesn’t tell you that if they had one they’d be prepared to deal with it — nor whether they are good at preventing one. Luck is great until it runs out. You should ask.
The Choice is Always Yours
Choosing a well run program doesn’t mean nothing will happen to your child — but if it does, you’ll know they will be in good hands and you did your due diligence to make sure they are in a place that doesn’t cut corners on safety.
You should ask.