While her mom works 12-hour shifts treating COVID-19 patients, 8-year-old Essence Williams learns about nature, space, technology, sports, fitness, visual arts, and performing Arts at Hamilton Community Center.

This year, she’s doing it all while wearing a mask and only after her temperature is checked.

“She’s always happy when she comes out,” said her grandmother, Aniska Frances.

While it’s rare for children to experience symptoms of COVID-19, they can easily spread the virus – especially when they’re playing with others, public health experts say. That makes day-care facilities and schools especially difficult to safely operate during a pandemic, so the City’s Parks and Recreation Department has taken extra precautions to provide free day camps for children 6-14 years old at eight different community centers.

Statewide emergency orders prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people, but daycare facilities are exempt as long as they follow safety measures outlined by the State.

A handful of staff members and only two children who attended the City’s day camp have tested positive for the coronavirus so far, said Homer Garcia III, director of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. “We have no reason to believe that this was a result of exposure from the camp,” he said.

The community centers are sanitized daily and receive a deep cleaning when anyone who has been there tests positive, Garcia said.

Essense has asthma and her mother is a respiratory therapist, Frances said, so they’re well aware of the dangers of coronavirus and wouldn’t participate in the summer program if they didn’t think it was safe.

“I trust them completely,” Frances said of the camp staff. Essence doesn’t seem to mind wearing a mask.

Before the pandemic, the City charged a fee for the camps and operated the camps in 24 facilities across the city.

“We didn’t charge [this year] because it’s unlike any other year,” he said. The sites were selected based on where the greatest need for no-cost childcare and for size to allow for social distancing. While the maximum capacity for the camps is 40 children, daily attendance has ranged from 12-25.”

Instead of rotating instructors to each facility to lead activities in specific themes, now each site is trained in each theme to avoid potential spread of the virus. Depending on the site, the camps will continue to run through Aug. 7-14.

Waitlists for the camps vary in length by site from two to 16 children. Essense, who has participated in previous years, was on Hamilton Community Center’s list at the beginning of the summer.

When the camp started, they weren’t requiring face masks for kids as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Garcia said. But when an employee tested positive in June, the City started requiring the children to wear masks.

“All the measures, I think, are in place to do this in a way that’s as safe as can be,” Garcia said. “There’s a need in the community [for childcare].”

The camps provide a glimpse into what returning to school may look like for many kids. Though Texas school districts will have the ability to stay online-only for the first eight weeks of the school year, reopening plans vary by district.

Frances, who works for North East Independent School District, said the day camp has been a blessing for her busy family.

As her district and others prepare for in-person instruction, it would be good if the City could keep the day camps open to offer a break for both students and parents, she said.

“Kids get bored at home,” she said. “I wish it wouldn’t end.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com