As advocates push for summer programming in 2021 to get kids back in the social and educational groove in the wake of the pandemic, a new study finds summer learning programs such as camps were out of reach for many New Jersey children in 2019.

According to a household survey commissioned by the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, 240,706 New Jersey minors were without access to learning programs in the summer before COVID-19, for any number of reasons.

Parents who can get their kids into a program are satisfied with the offerings, but the study cites a high unmet demand in the country and the Garden State, with children in low-income families most likely to miss out on summer opportunities.

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"This research tells us that unmet need for summer learning programs was a significant problem even before COVID-19 struck," said Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant. "The stakes are even higher now, with so many of our children needing academic help, social and emotional support, and opportunities to engage with peers and caring adults, be physically active, and more."

In the report, which gathered responses from 726 families in New Jersey, 92% reported they were satisfied with the structured summer experience their child attended. Thirty-two percent of the Garden State's K-12 kids participated in a summer program.

Among the New Jersey parents who did not have a child participate in a camp, summer school or other program in 2019, 41% cited cost as the primary reason. A quarter of families without a child in a summer program reported that they would have liked to have one available to them.

"In New Jersey we have such an abundance of wonderful programs, but then there are real deserts, and most of them are in urban areas," said Diane Genco, executive director of the New Jersey School-Age Care Coalition.

Genco said the lack of summer programs in 2020, caused by the COVID-19 crisis, was a "real eye-opener for a lot of communities."

"Our goal for this summer is to make these essential programs available to all children and youth in New Jersey," Genco said. "Students and families are relying on us to help kids re-engage, address anxiety and learning loss, and rediscover the passion for learning."

Genco said recreation departments throughout the state are looking for ways to provide more accessible programs, or offer scholarships. Many school districts, she said, run summer programs that are free — they're typically focused solely on academics, but in light of the pandemic's impacts are trying to focus more on the social-emotional angle.

Parents who want their kid or children involved in a state-registered progrmas may be eligible for financial assistance, dependent upon income.

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