Missoula recreation programs see spike in youth attendance, but future is uncertain

Donna Gauckler, director of Missoula Parks and Recreation, said COVID-19 could soon take a bite from the city’s youth programs as staffing becomes difficult. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

A greater need for child care created by the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the turnout at Missoula Parks and Recreation’s camps and youth programs, though they might meet constraints due to staffing.

Recreation program supervisor Meg Whicher said 2020 has been a “heck of a year” for them, with more accessible day camps. She added that the recreation department has been able to reach people they’ve never been able to reach before with day camps seeing broad increases.

Last year, their 5-day summer camps saw 3,029 youth enrolled. This year saw the summer camps increase to 3,445 youth. Discovery, their one-day after-school program, saw increases from 996 enrolled last summer to 1,409 enrolled this summer.

What it speaks to me is that parents and families are relying on our programming for more than just getting kids outside and active,” Whicher said. “It’s become a vital part of our community’s health and well-being to provide these programs. During the pandemic, they turned to the parks to trust us to place their kid, so they could go to work.”

That trust in the parks department is now seemingly being extended to BASE Camp Missoula, the department’s school-aged childcare program currently operating out of the former library.

There were 487 camp enrollments for the month of September, and after creating fee reductions using two state grants, enrollment rose to 827. The $960,000 in childcare grants came from the CARES Act.

“The CARES grant is this amazing thing, and what it allowed us to do was greatly reduce program fees for parents,” Whicher said.

Previously, a full day of care’s cost was between $32 to $40. A half day was anywhere from $20 to $25, and the after school program was $13. Now, those programs’ costs are reduced from 50% to 95% depending on the guardians’ self-reported income.

Whicher said it helps address a greater need for childcare with the schools’ implementation of hybrid learning. With hybrid learning, students might only attend two days of school a week, and the rest of the week will be left for their family to figure out.

“Parents are looking for childcare and for full-day programming, so they can work, make a living, pay their mortgage, and keep the big wheel turning during this time,” she said.

BASE Camp has also facilitated remote learning in their programming by giving enrolled youth time to do schoolwork, as well as providing laptops at the camp.

There is uncertainty as to whether they will be able to continue the reduced cost of daycare. The grants are set to expire at the end of this year, along with other CARES funding.

“Everything is so up-in-the-air with national politics on whether or not we are going to be able to expend any more of the grant after Dec. 31,” Whicher said. “So what’s going to happen? Are we going to have to raise prices back up? We’re not sure.”

Whicher said the parks department might face a broader existential problem alongside the uncertain funding spiking community COVID-19 cases that can end up leaving departments, like the daycare, short-staffed due to contact tracing and self-quarantining.

Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gauckler echoed Whicher’s concerns on COVID-19.

“I’m always hopeful. I’m always optimistic, but I will be unsurprised by periods of minimal shutdowns where we just do not have enough employees to keep certain aspects of our facility open,” Gauckler said. “And when I talk about that, I’m talking about everything, from all of our day camps to the maintenance and work facilities to the aquatics program.”