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‘It’s Been Really Difficult’: Dallas Working Parents Find Alternatives For A Summer Without Camps

What does summer look like during a pandemic? Working parents share their experiences and the challenge of coming up with alternatives for a summer without summer camps, school programs or daycare.

When COVID-19 struck North Texas in March, many parents, including Marina Medina, were left furloughed and working from home, helping their kids go through virtual learning for the first time.

Medina, who has two kids, said the experience was a preview of what summer was like.

“You know, I’m not a stay-at-home mom,” Medina said. “I’ve worked since they were babies.”

As the weeks grew into months, working parents were left scrambling for activities that could keep their children busy for the summer. A task that became even more difficult after many summer camps, after-school programs, daycare centers and summer sports teams made the decision to close or postpone their programming for the summer.

“It really turned everything around,” Medina said. “It was just really tough so we had to come up with alternatives.”

Normally, Medina’s two children take advantage of the summer camps and facilities at Reverchon, the Dallas Parks and Recreation Center in Dallas. Her 16-year-old son is now also in competitive soccer camps. Both were cancelled through July.

Instead, Medina said her 10-year-old daughter, Elle, spent her summer days hanging out with mom, showing her funny social media videos. They started having game nights, or working on different crafts together as a family.

“Stuff like that...We’re so busy on a normal day before COVID happened that we just didn’t have the chance to do it,” Medina said.

Kidd Springs Recreation Center in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas, is closed until further notice due to Covid-19.
Keren Carrión
Kidd Springs Recreation Center in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas, was closed until further notice due to Covid-19.

Casie Tomlin, a single mother of 6-year-old Mason, said she usually also relies on the Dallas Recreation Center as a childcare option when she goes to work. In previous years, they have camped out as early as 6 p.m. the night before, to reserve their spot in their summer camps.

This summer looked different. Tomlin is working from home full-time while being the sole-caretaker for Mason.

“It’s been really difficult,” Tomlin said. “It’s just me and him, 24/7.”

Tomlin said it’s been hard for her son to understand that when she’s on a work call, she can’t entertain him.

Casie Thomlin looks at emails while 6-year-old Mason works on his coloring book.
Keren Carrión
Casie Thomlin looks at emails while 6-year-old Mason works on his coloring book.

For them, the Dallas Recreation Center offered an affordable and convenient place to go where Mason would meet with his friends and go on different excursions throughout the city.

“He loves going there,” Tomlin said. “So I was disappointed that he wasn’t able to go this summer but I did understand it.”

Tomlin bought Mason a small bouncy house to keep him active and entertained when she can't play with him, and created a learning station in their living room.

“I’m just doing whatever it takes to where I’m able to work without being interrupted,” Tomlin said.

Tough Economic Choices

A survey from Northeastern University found that, out of 2,557 working parents, 13% had to quit a job or reduce hours due to lack of childcare.

Recreation centers are one of the most economically-friendly options for working parents who don’t have the ability to stay at home, often offering free facility use or charging $60 per week for youth summer programs.

When Liz and Jonathan Pruitt, who are both essential workers in the hospitality industry, were brought back to work in May, they were hoping to place their then 5-year-old son, Iker, at a summer camp at Kidd Springs Recreation Center or at a daycare at Cliff Temple church in Oak Cliff.

Iker, 6, sits with his parents, Liz and Jonathan Pruitt, during the interview.
Keren Carrión
Iker, 6, sits with his parents, Liz and Jonathan Pruitt, during the interview.

“We absolutely rely on summer camps as daycare,” Jonathan Pruitt said.

With their original plans not an option, friends of the Pruitts recommended KidVenture Camp at The Kessler School. Despite the camp being nearly five times more expensive than Dallas recreational centers, they opted to place Iker at the camp.

“It was expensive, but it was worth it,” Liz Pruitt said.

Iker attended every other week, because although he was getting much-needed social interaction, Jonathan Pruitt said it wasn’t economically sustainable to place him there week after week.

The Pruitts have lost nearly 50-60% of their income taking turns staying home to take care of Iker. Despite their loss of income, the Pruitts said they've come out of the experience stronger and are spending much more time with their son.

“There’s no money work can give me,” Liz Pruitt said. “He is my first priority.”

More Family Time

Crystal Ross, Assistant Director for Dallas Parks and Recreation, said attendance is up at local parks.

“Families are spending more time outside, riding outside,” Ross said. “Much more than in previous years.”

Medina said the only time she would really bond with her kids before the pandemic was in the car on the way to school, or soccer tournaments, or whatever her daughter was up to at the time.

“Ninety percent of the time we bonded was in a car,” Medina said. “Now it’s different, now we have that opportunity.”

Marina Medina watches her daughter, Elle, 10, play soccer at Kiest Park in Oak Cliff.
Keren Carrión
Marina Medina watches her daughter, Elle, 10, play soccer at Kiest Park in Oak Cliff.

An Extra Month Of Summer

On July 23, Dallas ISDannounced they would be pushing the start of the school year back to Sept. 8, adding an extra four weeks to an already difficult summer for many working parents.

Vicky Gouge, parent to 6-and-a-half year old Charlie, said she was “extremely frustrated” to hear the new school year has been pushed back.

“I feel like they had six months to figure this out,” Gouge said. “And now we have nothing for him to do.”

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has decided all learning will take place virtually for at least the first four weeks of school. This leaves Dallas working parents now facing the difficult decision to opt for in-person, virtual or hybrid learning.

Thomlin said she will not send her son to school until there’s a vaccine available, and will opt for a fully-virtual learning experience.

Medina said she wants to opt for a hybrid situation, fearing having her children go into school but knowing they need that social interaction.

“I know my kids and I know what they need,” she said.

Liz Pruitt said they have no choice. They have to send their son to in-person classes as soon as they are available.

“We’re putting him back into full in-class learning right away, if we can,” Jonathan Pruitt said, “because we work.”

With many after-school activities on hold, working parents will be facing a similar situation in the fall: balancing their work schedules with having kids at home 24/7.

Keren I. Carrión is a visual journalist for KERA in Dallas as well as The Texas Newsroom, a journalism collaboration among the public radio stations of Texas and NPR. She is currently a Report for America corps member.