Parker Summers Goes Virtual

How the summer program transitioned to virtual activities


Photo credit: Jacob Boxerman

Every week, students from around Chicago would wake up and log into a virtual Parker Summers program, pulling out supplies for the day’s activities. For two and a half hours, they would draw, play sports, code, build Legos, and do TikTok dances. This was Parker Summers 2020, a virtual take on the traditional summer program. 

This summer, COVID-19 left children who, with a full summer planned, suddenly had three months ahead of them in one long stretch. Summer programs around the city and country that students had planned on taking part in were canceled. That left many families looking for activities that would be enjoyable for their children while being safe from the virus.

 One program that students were planning to take part in this summer was Parker Summers. Sixth grader Matthew Oppeheimer has taken part in Parker Summers programs for the past six summers. Over the years, the games and skills he learned included basketball, dodgeball, and rock climbing. He was enthusiastic about the programs he had taken part in: “If I would describe my experience in three words, I’d say that it was easy to remember, it was memorable, fun, and adventurous,” said Oppeheimer.

Parker Summers is a program that offers field trips, games, sports, arts, and other activities which students look forward to every year. However, due to the coronavirus spreading across the city, in-person Parker Summers had to be canceled. Jan Zoufal and Stacie Newmark, longtime directors of Parker Summers, brainstormed ways to have the camp in a safe, socially distanced way while still making it fun and interesting for the students participating.

Zoufal and Newmark began planning for this camp in June, when it was clear that in-person camps would have to be canceled for the summer. “One of the biggest obstacles in the planning process was getting campers to sign up,” Zoufal said. “Many families wanted their children to be outside and active during the summer.” 

Many parents were hesitant to sign their children up for summer programs that would take place online instead of the usual in-person program. Basak Notz, a Parker parent, has two children ages 12 and 10 enrolled in the Digital Photography and the Art Squad. “Our girls were hesitant about a virtual program,”  Notz said. “We know that most summer camps and activities of summer are unavailable, so we thought that doing a camp with teachers they know from Parker could be more enticing and engaging for them. Both our girls enjoy a little bit of structure in their lives, even during summer break, and this camp was the right amount.”

Although one of the biggest hurdles during the planning period was enrollment, the virtual program was able to run three two-week sessions with healthy enrollment numbers. “Advertising our creativity helped with registration,”  Zoufal said. “We also offered flexible meeting times.”

Notz is enthusiastic about how the camps have gone. “Our girls are having a great time with their camps. I think that both girls are truly enjoying seeing their friends, other students again, and albeit virtually, spending time with others than their family.” 

Notz, Newmark, and  Zoufal were full of praise for the job that the teachers at Parker Summers were doing. “Our teachers have done an amazing job to provide the summer energy needed online,” the two directors said. 

 Notz agrees. “One of my daughters is studying how to use Adobe Photoshop, experimenting with photo subjects and compositions, and learning about different artists. My other daughter has been sent art supplies for the camp that she opens every week with surprising material to use for the week’s activities. She is very engaged and enjoys the flexible but very interactive structure that her teacher is offering,” said Notz.

The void created by cancelling summer camps has given families who normally do not participate in Parker Summers, such as the Notz family, a chance to do so. Both the directors and participants in the camp agreed that the programs were going well and were good substitutes for the traditional in-person programs. It helped make this summer as normal as possible for the students. With the virus changing every day, it’s a relief for parents and students to know that Parker Summers will always be an option, whether virtual or in-person.