Waitlists, error messages and a call line 90 people deep thwarted Arlington residents’ attempts to enroll in spring classes through the parks department this morning (Wednesday).
The Department of Parks and Recreation offers a variety of classes in the spring, fall and winter that range from gymnastics and swimming to ceramics and jewelry making. The classes for kids are particularly popular with local parents. And registration day system failures — like those from opening day of summer camp registration — are not new for these classes, either.
Some compared the registration process to “getting front row Bruce Springsteen tickets” — to wit, “stressful and horrible.” Others likened it to the summer camp sign-up drama three weeks ago.
This happens every time. It just happened with summer camps. It is truly inequitable that parents are expected to spend 60-90 minutes while the system times out to access these classes. You have to fix this.
— Nicki (@oryelle) March 16, 2022
After summer camp registration crashed immediately upon opening the morning of Feb. 23 — despite attempts to beef up the platform in advance — parks department spokeswoman Susan Kalish said the platform vendor conducted “tests and improvements that should have resulted in a smooth registration” on Wednesday morning.
That did not happen.
“This morning, Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation saw slower than desired response times for the spring ENJOY Arlington class registration,” she said. “Even though we staggered class registration start times and limited user search capabilities, our vendor’s registration system could not handle the high registration volume.”
While the number of people competing for spots was high, it was still on par with prior first-day enrollments, she said.
Registration opened for gymnastics classes at 7 a.m., aquatics classes at 7:30 a.m., and all other classes at 8 a.m. Residents reported struggling to get their preferences despite having their fingers poised over their keyboards ahead of time.
After 90 minutes, I have successfully registered two kids for swim classes on two different nights of the week, and my third child is waitlisted. 90 minutes. I was sitting in front of my computer, class numbers in hand, at 7:25am.
— Brooke Oberwetter (@brookeOB1) March 16, 2022
DPR encouraged people to call the office for assistance with registration. The line was quickly swamped with callers, and while they waited, the online platform timed people out.
The line had 79 people on hold when I tried & I was booted out of the online system at least a dozen times before I gave up. Friends report the same. This system is failing working parents and all but ensures those most in need of affordable options for their kids won’t get it.
— Maggie Bush (@dcmaggieb) March 16, 2022
Those looking to enroll in just one class said even that was impossible.
Tried to register exactly at 8 am. Only wanted 1 class. Constant error messages. Called help line. 90th in line. 40 minutes later was told over the phone we were waitlisted. System thought we were non-arlington residents even though our account address was in arlington. Very mad
— Kevin Muse (@KevinMu39953916) March 16, 2022
Following today’s issues, some repeated their calls on the parks department to fix the system, or change it to a lottery process. Under that system, parents would not have to wake up early and register at lightning speed, but it would add uncertainty to their kids’ schedules.
An unscientific ARLnow poll found 41% of respondents support a lottery system, while 58% said DPR ought to keep the current process but get better technology or a new vendor. At least one resident suggested Arlington look to the tech giant Amazon, currently building its second headquarters in Pentagon City.
— verycaroline (@verycaroline) March 16, 2022
Last month, Board Chair Katie Cristol issued a statement responding to and echoing parent frustrations with the process for getting into camp. She said the Board told County Manager Mark Schwartz and department leaders it expects a “full reform of registration.”
She reiterated those sentiments in a statement to ARLnow Wednesday morning.
“We’re disappointed and frustrated, and this highlights the need for the total redesign of the registration process to which DPR has committed,” she said of today’s issues.
DPR will start reviewing its processes and solutions this spring, Kalish said.
A plan for improvements to next year’s registration process could be ready by September, DPR’s Director Jane Rudolph told the County Board yesterday (Tuesday) during a work session on the upcoming 2022-23 budget.
She told the Board that preventing future breakdowns “is our highest department-wide priority.”
“As we know, the issue goes beyond just a technology solution,” she said. “We have a high demand and not enough supply for certain camps and for certain age groups.”
DPR is looking into increasing slots where demand is greatest: options for older toddlers and elementary school-aged kids, as well as sports and robotics programs, Rudolph said.
Post Office Naming Bill Introduced — “Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) today introduced legislation to rename the post office in Arlington on George Mason Drive (currently designated ‘Arlington Post Office’) after local letter carrier Jesus Collazos. Collazos immigrated to Northern Virginia from Colombia in 1978 and worked for 25 years as a USPS postal carrier in Arlington. He died of COVID-19 early in the pandemic.” [Press Release]
Police Hosting Summer Camps — “As part of our department’s key initiative of Community Engagement, the Youth Outreach Unit (YOU) works to proactively engage youth in Arlington through community-based outreach strategies. YOU Officers are excited to offer three camps focused on education, relationship-building and positive youth development while ensuring participants enjoy a fun-filled and safe summer.” [ACPD]
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It’s Wednesday — Sunny in the morning, then becoming cloudy in the afternoon before rain overnight. High of 68 and low of 44. Sunrise at 7:19 am and sunset at 7:18 pm. [Weather.gov]
Man Tased After Columbia Pike Assault — “The suspect was inside of a business, acting disorderly and aggressive towards other patrons, when he allegedly approached the victim and struck him in the face. The victim sustained minor injuries and did not require medical treatment. Responding officers located the suspect, who continued to act disorderly and resisted arrest. A brief struggle ensued, during which the officer deployed a TASER, and the suspect was subsequently taken into custody without further incident.” [ACPD]
Library Reads on the Ukraine Conflict — “Ukraine and Russia are top of the headlines around the world. Dig deeper into the two countries and their history in these books.” [Twitter, Arlington Public Schools]
Marymount Going Mask Optional — “On Monday, Marymount University announced to students, faculty and staff that the institution’s indoor mask requirement will no longer be in effect starting this Tuesday, March 1. This decision is based upon low COVID-19 metrics in Arlington County.” [Press Release]
On to States for W-L Boys Hoops — “The host South Lakes Seahawks played a part in the Generals’ failed attempt, winning that Feb. 25 boys 6D North Region tournament boys high-school basketball title contest, 56-47… Next for Washington-Liberty is the Virginia High School League’s Class 6 state tournament, with a first-round quarterfinal game against the undefeated Hayfield Hawks on March 4 or 5.” [Sun Gazette]
Beyer Wants to Nix Stadium Tax Break — “A Virginia congressman wants to sack a financial incentive package aimed at luring the Washington Commanders’ new stadium to the Commonwealth. U.S. Representative Don Beyer, a Democrat who represents Virginia’s 8th Congressional District in the heart of Northern Virginia, said stadium bond packages like the one working its way through the Virginia state legislature takes needed tax revenue out of the pockets of taxpayers all to benefit people who have more than enough money to build new stadiums on their own.” [WUSA 9]
Cherry Blossom Bloom Prediction — From the National Park Service: “We’re projecting cherry blossom peak bloom to fall between March 22 – 25 this year!” [Twitter]
It’s Wednesday — Sunny skies in the morning become partly cloudy. High of 60 and low of 40. Sunrise at 6:40 am and sunset at 6:03 pm. [Weather.gov]
Yet another year of summer camp registration drama is prompting action by the Arlington County Board.
The online registration system used by Arlington’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation again melted down as camp registration opened at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, despite efforts to beef up the systems this year.
Camp registration is competitive in Arlington, with parents jockeying for position to claim some of the prime camp slots the second registration opens. That makes it tough to keep up with demand, amid hundreds or even thousands of people trying to register at the same time.
At stake is not only enrichment opportunities for kids, but affordable de facto childcare for parents.
After another year of stories of frustrated parents spending an hour or more trying to get the registration pages to load, Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said the Board has “been in touch with the County Manager and department leadership about expectations for a full reform of registration.”
DPR will be “designing a new process” and the Board has “asked for details… including a timeline for implementation,” Cristol said in a statement she posted on social media.
More from the Board on expectations for reforming summer camp registration, below. Importantly for this year: 6,000 spots are still open for this summer, and families who need DPR camp can continue to register online or w/ customer service team, [email protected] pic.twitter.com/aLmeAmhQg6
— Katie Cristol (@kcristol) February 24, 2022
What’s unclear is what a new registration system might entail.
One possibility is that the process remains competitive, with more robust technology preventing server crashes and those with quick clicking fingers continuing to get an advantage.
Another possibility, as suggested by some parents in the wake of last week’s fiasco, is a lottery system that would remove the need for parents to wake up early and try to register as quickly as possible, but would add some additional uncertainty to parents’ summer childcare plans.
In a lottery system, one might have to try to register for multiple camps in order to increase the odds of getting a given time slot. Then, they would have to cancel the registration for any duplicate entries. But if everyone adopted that strategy, it might lead to a chaotic registration process and make it hard for DPR to predict the true demand for a given camp.
Which do you think the parks department should choose?
County Board Wants Camp Revamp — From County Board Chair Katie Cristol: “More from the Board on expectations for reforming summer camp registration, below. Importantly for this year: 6,000 spots are still open for this summer, and families who need DPR camp can continue to register online or w/ customer service team, [email protected]” [Twitter]
Jobs in Arlington Increase Slightly — “Year-over-year employment within Arlington County improved in the third quarter of 2021, according to new federal data, but lagged the overall national rebound. There were a total of 172,600 jobs recorded in Arlington for September 2021 by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and reported Feb. 23. That’s up 0.4 percent from a year before.” [Sun Gazette]
New ACPD K9 Graduates — From the Arlington County Police Department: “Join us in congratulating Cpl. Doescher & K9 Wilson on their graduation from basic patrol K9 school, which includes training on conducting building and area searches, advanced obedience and tracking!” [Twitter]
Yorktown Hockey Is Undefeated — “With blowout victories in their final two matches, the Yorktown Patriots completed their first undefeated regular season since 2003 with a 10-0 record in high-school club ice hockey. In its final match, Yorktown blanked Flint Hill, 10-1.” [Sun Gazette]
High School Hoops Update — “Two Arlington teams advanced to the semifinals and another lost in first-round action of the girls and boys 6D North Region high-school basketball tournaments the night of Feb. 22. Moving on are the Washington-Liberty Generals in boys action and the Yorktown Patriots in girls, each Liberty District tournament champions. The Wakefield Warriors (11-10) had their season end with a first-round 69-56 loss to the host Madison Warhawks in a boys game.” [Sun Gazette]
Va. ABC Removes Russian Vodka — “In the spirit of Gov. Youngkin’s call for decisive action in support of Ukraine, Virginia ABC is removing 7 Russian-sourced vodka brands from our store shelves. Russian-themed brands not produced in Russia like Stolichnaya and Smirnoff will not be removed.” [Twitter, Axios]
Nearby: Bailey’s Xroads Arson Suspect Sought — “Fire investigators are seeking the public’s help in identifying a person of interest related to a fire that occurred on Tuesday, February 22, at approximately 6:30 a.m., in the 5600 block of Columbia Pike.” [Twitter, Fairfax County Fire/Rescue]
It’s Monday — Clear throughout the day. High of 43 and low of 31. Sunrise at 6:43 am and sunset at 6:01 pm. [Weather.gov]
(Updated at 11:50 a.m.) Like death and taxes, Arlington summer camp registration drama is inevitable, despite efforts to avoid it.
This year, of course, was supposed to be different. This year, beefier systems and new monitoring tools were supposed to help avoid the technical meltdowns of past years.
But Arlington moms and dads and their fast clicking fingers are undefeated, instantly bringing down the Dept. of Parks and Recreation’s camp registration website when the virtual gates were opened this morning at 7 a.m.
“Pulled up the web page at 6:50 this a.m.,” one frustrated parent of a seven-year-old tennis enthusiast recounted to ARLnow this morning. “Found the only camp I was trying to register… Waited until 7:00 a.m. when registration opened and tried to register… [spent] 40 minutes trying to log in.”
Numerous others reported similar experiences. The lucky ones were able to register for some camps after nearly an hour of navigating various error messages.
“With so many two parent working families in this county, summer camps are child care — plain and simple,” another parent who reached out via email wrote. “How can a county that proclaims equity have such a crappy website that crashes when it comes to summer child care? Every single year this happens.”
That parent, who was also prepared in advance and started clicking at 7 a.m. on the dot, was only able to notch a hollow victory in her registration quest.
“I got [my daughter] into one [camp] after an hour of watching the wheel turn saying please wait, trying to add the camps to my cart only to get kicked out, and then the website timing out completely just as I was about to register,” the parent wrote. “She is now waitlisted for 4 of the 5 camps. I have no idea what I am going to do for childcare over the summer.”
The parks department was, as in years past, apologetic.
“Thank you for your patience,” DPR said in a message posted to it website. “Due to increased registration volume the system is performing slower than anticipated. DPR is working hard to address the problem. Please stay in queue. We are seeing registrations go through slowly and have been working with our vendor all morning.”
Late Wednesday morning, a parks department spokeswoman provided the following statement to ARLnow.
We understand how important summer camp is to Arlington families and we strive to make the customer experience positive from beginning to end. That clearly did not happen today. We apologize for the frustrating experience that many people had this morning trying to register for summer camp. The DPR team is working diligently to help enroll our customers who have been waitlisted or otherwise unable to successfully register this morning.
Last year our contractor added resources to support an even higher transaction volume and implemented. However, this year due to substantially higher registration volume these efforts didn’t go far enough.
DPR will do a full review of the summer camp registration process; this will include exploring both technology and operational solutions to provide a better registration process for 2023.
More parent accounts of this year’s registration issues are below.
Get your clicking fingers ready, Arlington’s often competitive summer camp registration process will be opening next week.
Arlington’s parks and rec department has made some changes to try to ensure last year’s technical problems don’t happen again. The problems stem from a crush of parents all trying to register for limited camp slots at the same time.
“Summer Camp registration is the busiest registration for Arlington County Parks & Recreation,” department spokeswoman Susan Kalish tells ARLnow. “And for good reason. We provide more than 600 camps to our community, from classic camps to computing. We recognize the importance of providing options for our diverse community with indoor, outdoor and a combination.”
The camps this year run from June 21-Aug. 26. Registration for Arlington residents is set to open next Wednesday (Feb. 23) at 7 a.m., a month earlier than last year’s registration date.
“We have space for about 20,000 campers throughout the summer,” noted Kalish. “We anticipate about 50% of these spaces will be taken the day registration opens.”
Last year ARLnow heard from multiple people about the registration system going down shortly after opening. It was fixed an hour later, but not before considerable consternation among parents.
“The Arlington County Parks & Rec summer camp registration website was a total mess this morning,” a tipster told us at the time. “It opened at 7 a.m. for parents to register and immediately started crashing and timing out… I suspect there will be many angry parents this morning.”
It wasn’t the first time for such problems.
“Another epic registration system meltdown this morning for Arlington Parks & Rec summer camps,” said another tipster, referencing past issues. “Having an open comments section on this topic will drive significant traffic of all the parents who need to get out their rage after spending 1.5 hours on a platform that timed out repeatedly.”
The problems are also not unique to the parks department. Arlington Public Schools has repeatedly had issues with its similarly competitive extended day registration process.
This time around, county officials say the technology contractor used by DPR for camp registrations has beefed up their systems to account for the zeal with which Arlingtonians try to register at the earliest opportunity.
“To ensure we have the capacity to support community interest, our contractor has added resources to support an even higher transaction volume and implemented additional monitoring tools to provide more visibility into our software’s performance,” Kalish said.
“Camp registration is an all hands on deck event,” she added. “We pull in staff from various units to make sure it is as seamless as possible.”
Summer Camp Registration Woes — “There were technical problems with the online registration system for Arlington Dept. of Parks and Rec summer camps this morning, readers tell ARLnow. From a parks dept. spokesperson: ‘Our online registration system experienced some technical issues this morning during the first hour of registration, but it was fixed by approximately 8:05am. By noon, over 8,300 registrations were completed.'” [Twitter]
Reminder: HQ2 Phase 2 Meeting Tonight — “The County is kicking off a public review process for the proposed next phase of Amazon’s HQ2. Thursday at 6:30 p.m. join an virtual community meeting to learn more about the plan, how the review process works, and when you can share feedback.” [Twitter, Arlington County]
‘Our Revolution’ Joins Civic Federation — “You say you want a revolution? Upon further review, the Arlington County Civic Federation has decided… it does! At the organization’s March 13 meeting, a vote on the membership application of the left-leaning political group Our Revolution Arlington came up for consideration by federation delegates. The final vote was 40 to approve, 11 to reject, eight abstentions and one non-response.” [Sun Gazette]
New GOP Entrant in Delegate Race — “The district trends Democratic in the same way Chicago winters trend cold, but a Republican has stepped up with plans to contest the 45th House of Delegates district in November. J.D. Maddox, a small-business owner and former Central Intelligence Agency official, announced March 23 he planned to seek the seat currently held by Del. Mark Levine, a Democrat.” [Sun Gazette, ALXnow]
Death Penalty Repealed in Va. — “Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed legislation to officially abolish the death penalty in Virginia, making it the first Southern state to ban capital punishment. ‘Justice and punishment are not always the same thing, that is too clearly evident in 400 years of the death penalty in Virginia,’ Northam, a Democrat, said during remarks ahead of signing the legislation, saying that it is both the right and the moral thing to do.” [NBC News, Commonwealth of Virginia]
And this year, for the first time, the free camp — founded to encourage women to become firefighters — is open to all teens regardless of gender.
Twenty-four girls and boys ages 15 to 18 will have the chance to experience five days of what it takes to be an Arlington firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician.
To participate, teens must apply by May 1 and be accepted. The camp runs 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. from June 21-25.
According to the county, Camp Heat introduces teens to fire and EMT simulations and career opportunities as first responders, while teaching them life skills such as physical fitness, nutrition and CPR.
“The goal of the camp is to increase the participants’ confidence and empower them to consider entering physically challenging careers, such as the fire service, later in life,” the county website said.
As of 2018, at least three campers had applied or joined their local fire department.
Camp Heat was founded is to “empower young females through an introduction to the Fire and Emergency Medical Services.”
Nationwide, women are underrepresented in firefighting, comprising less than 10% of firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association. But it was an Arlington County firefighter named Judith “Judy” Brewer who blazed a trail for them when she was hired as the nation’s first female career firefighter in 1974.
This is the first year that the department has opened the program to all teens, ACFD spokesman Taylor Blunt confirmed.
With only 24 spots available, the application asks applicants to “take care in completing the application and provide thoughtful answers to the essay.”
“Applicants are expected to be responsible and demonstrate a self-starting attitude,” the application said. “Applicants must be… in good physical health in order to participate in the rigorous activities planned.”
Due to COVID-19, the campers will not be able to go inside the firehouse. Other safety precautions such as temperature checks and masks will be required as well.
Campers are required to provide their own blue pants, black belt, and safety boots/shoes.
Have you or your kid attended All American Sports Camp, Patriot Girls Basketball Camp, Orange Line Sports Camp, or Mojo Volleyball Camp?
Representatives from all of these organizations showed up to a recent Sports Commission meeting to voice their concerns over the new way summer camps will be administered, their ability to pay hourly employees, and new cost burdens on families.
Summary of changes
1) When you pay for a camp, that money will now go to the county instead of the camp. Arlington does not need to pay camps for their services until 45 days after camp finishes. This creates a serious cash flow problem for camps that could make them unable to feasibly operate.
As an employer, campes are required to pay hourly workers biweekly according to Virginia state law, and camps often last 5 days. This means after camp finishes, camps are legally required to pay their employees 9 days later, but the county does not need to pay the camps for another 45 days. Staff even stated that their contractor for this service is not known for speed on disbursements. This is a cash flow problem that effectively eliminates camp operators from effectively being able to run their businesses.
As conveyed by those at the Commission meeting, oftentimes these camps are run by teachers. These are not year-round businesses like normal county contractors. One camp administrator estimates their camp costs at around $100,000, which they would not have the ability to pay without having the registration revenue.
2) Increased fees given for the county will lead to increased costs to campers. Arlington now requires 30% of all revenues to be given to the county. This has increased from 20% in just three years.
Patriots Girls Basketball camp founder, Kip Davis, said, “In the 25 years I’ve hosted this camp I have increased my cost by just $55. I don’t make a ton of money doing this camp. I do it for the kids. We want to make sure all kids can afford to go to camp, see friends, and give parents a little break. This dramatic increase in cost plus us not being in control of funds will cause camp prices to noticeably increase, which is counter to my goal of camp affordability.”
The Arlington County Board this weekend is set to consider allocating $133,413 to provide refunds to one of the county’s summer camp contractors.
The contractor — American In-Line Skating, Inc. — went bankrupt after the county cancelled summer camps this year on account of the pandemic, a county staff report says. More from the report:
The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) provides a variety of summer camp programming each year, delivered through a combination of DPR staff-led camps and contractor-led camps. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, all 2020 summer camp programs were canceled by Arlington County in late May. Registrants that signed up for camps that are delivered by DPR-staff were refunded in full; registrants that signed up for camps that are delivered by contractor-led camps were refunded according to the individual contractors’ refund policies. One contractor filed for bankruptcy and denied any form of refunds to registrants.
To facilitate the promised refunds, the county is taking a somewhat unorthodox step: making a charitable donation to a local nonprofit, which will then provide the refunds.
“Arlington County has identified Arlington Thrive, a 501(c)(3) organization with a long-standing relationship with Arlington County, to provide refunds in accordance with the camp contractor’s original refund policy that is not being honored,” the staff report says. “Arlington County will provide the funding to Arlington Thrive in the form of a charitable donation of $133,413 from existing funds available in the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) existing donation balances in Trust and Agency accounts.”
Arlington Thrive, which has also been working with the county to help those having trouble paying their rent during the pandemic, will receive a 5% fee for administering the donations.
The situation is reminiscent of the year-long saga of local youth basketball referees who went unpaid after a contractor suffered a serious medical issue. In that case, Arlington officials insisted that there were no legal remedies for paying the refs with county funds; after a year of discussions and efforts to find other remedies, a County Board member launched a GoFundMe campaign.
Susan Kalish, spokeswoman for the Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation, said the two situations are different.
“In the case of the referees, the County paid the contractor (a company that provides referees for indoor basketball games); however, the contractor, in turn, did not fully pay its subcontractors, the referees,” she said in response to an inquiry from ARLnow. “It is not an appropriate precedent for the County to set to pay subcontractors for work that the County has already paid the contractor.”
“In the case of the camp refunds, the contractor did not honor their stated refund policy,” she continued. “In its communication materials regarding its bankruptcy, the contractor named the decision by the County to cancel camps as the driving factor in its bankruptcy filing… As a result of the bankruptcy filing, the County has a complete list of individuals who were denied refunds and the amount owed.”
Kalish said the county will be making changes to prevent such issues from happening again.
“The County is in the process of amending summer camp contracts to shift the registration and payments from camp contractor’s responsibilities to the County, to ensure that all aspects of the payment, cancelation and refund experience for camp participants are managed by the County,” she said.
“Both of these issues, a camp contractor not honoring its refund policy and a referee contractor not paying its subcontractors, are troubling and not how Arlington County expects its contractors to manage their businesses,” Kalish added. “Neither contractor will be able to do business with Arlington County in the future.”