Parents out money after summer camp cancels in-person programming

Greater Victoria parents are frustrated that a popular science and technology summer camp that cancelled its in-person programming is refusing to give refunds or the option to defer the fees until next year.

In February, Victoria mom Heather Oliver signed up her five-year-old son Silas for STEM Camp, which was being offered over several weeks in July at Oak Bay United Church. She signed Silas up for one week, which cost $257.

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“It sounded great,” she said. “It was experiments and outside time.”

According to its website, STEM Camp is a Canadian, bilingual, non-profit organization that offers camps for young people in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in 40 locations across Ontario and at least one in Greater Victoria.

However, in late April, just over a month into B.C.’s state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oliver decided to pull Silas from the camp and request a refund. Oliver has a health condition that requires immonosuppressant drugs and she didn’t want to risk exposure to the virus.

Oliver received an email stating no refunds would be given for the 2020 summer camps. Oliver said this policy differs from what’s stated in the parent handbook, which she received after enrollment. The earlier policy states parents can receive a refund minus a 10 per cent administration fee if they give 30 days’ notice.

“It’s just a real kick in the teeth because it’s done so unethically,” she said.

Oak Bay United Church said it was contacted by the camp earlier this year to rent a meeting space but no deposit was required to secure the rental. The church, which is not affiliated with STEM Camp, notified the camp on April 2 that they could not longer provide the space due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

On Friday, STEM Camp sent an email to parents saying that due to COVID-19, the in-person camps would be cancelled. Instead of refunds, parents had the option to donate to the STEM Camp organization, or enroll in a virtual camp, which consists of hour-and-a-half online sessions over eight weeks.

Oliver said that’s not going to work for her because the camp doubles as child care. “For the camp to suggest that we go from an all-day camp, which many parents use as child care because we’re working, to a one-and-a-half-hour Zoom class in the morning at home doesn’t make sense,” she said. “It’s not a viable alternative.”

Camp founder Kevin Cougler said he would love to offer all families refunds, but it’s financially impossible for an organization on the brink of bankruptcy.

“I can’t stand the situation, I hate it. I would love to return everyone’s money today and I would if I could,” said Cougler, who lives in Embro, Ontario, a small community northeast of London. “Instead of declaring bankruptcy, what we decided to do was try and offer the virtual sessions for parents this summer, which we fully realize doesn’t work for everybody, but it’s all we can do at this point. We’re that close to closing the doors.”

Cougler said cancelling the in-person camps was the responsible and safe thing to do, especially with hundreds of new COVID-19 cases a day in Ontario. Out of the more than 8,000 kids who enrolled this summer, Cougler said hundreds have taken up the option of the virtual camps.

He did not have numbers on how many kids were enrolled in the Oak Bay camps.

Cougler, who has an 11-year-old son, said the attacks on his family have been vicious, with some showing up at his wife’s business and publishing the addresses of employees. Some are sharing information on a Facebook page called Families for STEM Camp refunds.

The seven-year-old organization has eight full-time employees and hires between 250 and 300 part-time employees, most of them students, to work in the summer.

Cougler said many costs have already been paid for, such as site rentals and between $200,000 and $300,000 worth of inventory. The organization was not able to qualify for many of the federal government’s emergency aid programs, such as the $40,000 loan program, he said.

“COVID-19 is affecting all summer camps right now,” he said.

Sarah Savidant, another Victoria mom whose five-year-old son Nolan was signed up for a week of STEM Camp in July, said she’s now scrambling to find another day camp for that week. Nolan, who loves building things and experimenting with kitchen science kits, was looking forward to the camp, Savidant said.

Savidant said she would have even been happy for a credit for next year, but that’s not being offered. She also said the online version won’t work for her family.

“We want an educational experience or a sport experience or some kind of experience that’s tailored to your kids’ needs. And absolutely the reason camps are attended is because they act as care.”

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