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Considering Summer Academic Enrichment Programs?: The 5 Health & Safety Questions You Should Be Asking

When you send your child to a college or university campus for a summer youth program, you may assume that there are comprehensive safety standards in place to protect your child. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Colleges and universities running their own programs may operate them with a level of supervision that they use during the academic year, which might be appropriate for college students, but not so with minors. While other programs are renting space on campus and the college or university does not get involved in program operations. No doubt, there are many great programs out there, and it just takes a little research to be able to identify them.

After working in the summer program industry for almost 40 years, I’ve put together a few things you should know and some questions you should be asking as you consider summer options.

Are there industry standards around supervision and safety for summer youth programs?
The simple answer is no. There is a hodgepodge of state regulations -- and in some states, there are no requirements at all -- and even in states where there are regulations, it’s not unusual that academic enrichment 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 to contract out most everything else – supervision of students, residence halls, trips, medical care, student activities, and hiring of non-classroom staff and their training. 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 and some are not. Some work well, some don’t. You should ask who is responsible for what. 

What does staff-student ratio really mean?
For a residential summer 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 while dining hall and custodial staff play critical roles, they aren’t there to supervise students, nor oftentimes are instructors, many of whom do not live on campus. And 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 summer programs maintain a dedicated health center on campus staffed by registered nurses round the clock seven days a week. This is rarer than you would think 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 medications – prescription and over-the-counter – are floating around a program because they are not regulated by trained medical care providers. 

Some summer youth 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, and untrained staff have to determine if it’s prudent and necessary to make arrangements to take a student to these off campus clinics. 

Some programs rely on the university health services, which can be very good, but without a dedicated program health office on campus, it becomes almost impossible to reasonably care for sick children or to isolate them should they not be around other children. Unfortunately, poor choices around student medical concerns have had fateful results and closed some otherwise successful summer programs. Ask who makes decisions about caring for a student who does not feel well. Also ask what happens if a student isn’t feeling well for a few days. Where will they stay and who will look after them?

You are concerned about your child in the summer. Will you be able to speak to someone who knows your child, their roommate, and the other young people on the floor? 
For years, one prominent university that still runs a large summer program for high school students claimed that they could not discuss a student’s situation or issues with parents because they were prevented from doing so by federal law. But, they were applying federal law aimed at those 18 and older to minors. Whether it was a genuine but serious misreading of the law or a convenient way to keep parents at bay is unclear. 

Another prominent institution running a summer program only became aware that a student had not left her room for close to three days because her parents became worried that they could not get ahold of her. The program itself did not pick up on the fact she was not out and about. Of course, this begs the question asto how many times per day students are accounted for. You should 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 1000+ 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 that they’d be prepared to deal with it, nor whether they are good at preventing one. Luck is great until it runs out. So ask.

Standards for health and safety at academic enrichment 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. You should be able to speak with someone who will be on the ground during the summer and can actually speak with some level of specificity as to what happens rather than reading from a script. Choosing a well run summer youth 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.

Moira Kelly is the president of EXPLO.  She has worked in the summer enrichment program industry on college, university, and prep school campuses for almost 40 years, and has consulted for a variety of college and university summer programs on risk management and operations.