How COVID-19 Is Changing Summer Camps

Some summer camps are getting the green light to open for the 2020 season, but what exactly can parents and kids expect?

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Despite the fact that there have been over 3.5 million cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. and more than 130,000 lives have been lost, many parts of the country are beginning to reopen. Kids might actually have the option to join their friends at the camp they were looking forward to all year as in-person summer camp is on the table again. But there's just one question on parents' minds: will summer camp be safe? And what, exactly, can they expect for their kids if they decide to send them?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out guidance for camp administrators in collaboration with local and state health officials to help lower the risk of COVID-19. Since the coronavirus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets—like from a sneeze or a cough—the CDC's top recommendations are basic, and things you've been doing with your family all along: proper hand-washing, thorough cleaning and disinfecting, and staying home when you're sick, if you've tested positive for COVID-19, or if you've recently been near someone with COVID-19.

Cloth masks are recommended for staffers and campers over the age of 2, especially when social distancing may be difficult. When it comes to any shared objects—like art equipment, for example—the CDC says it's best if each camper has their own, especially if those supplies can't easily be sanitized. In the same vein, each camper should bring their own lunch instead of eating communally.

A few other changes you'll likely see at summer camp 2020: kids will remain in smaller groups throughout the day rather than enjoying camp-wide activities, drop-off and pick-up will be staggered, nonessential visitors—that means grandma or grandpa stopping by to say hello—will be limited, and any field trips will probably be nixed.

Are these new precautions enough though? Despite the new safety and health guidelines camps are implementing as they reopen, COVID-19 outbreaks at summer camps are happening across the country. Vice reports that camps are, unfortunately, becoming a hotbed for coronavirus spread, with cases popping up everywhere from New Jersey to Missouri to Florida—forcing programs to pause or completely shut down, even with local and state precautions in place.

Before signing your children up, you'll have to weigh the pros and cons for your family. You'll also want to be sure to check how your camp's policies align with health guidelines in your area and whether or not there have been any cases nearby—or at the camp itself. And don't forget to ask about their plans if someone does become ill just to cover all your bases (including potentially isolating, backup staffing, or closing down).

Got all that and still planning to send the kiddos off to summer camp? Here's what else two camp directors say parents can expect.

Day Camp

"This summer will be different, but you can’t remove the spirit of fun and big-hearted efforts from staff in the summer camp industry," says Amy Costa, executive director of branch operations at Meadowlands YMCA in East Rutherford, New Jersey, whose camp season began on July 6. "Both kids and staff count down to the start of camp each year and this year I think even more so."

Designed for ages 5 through 12, kids who participate in the YMCA day camp will enjoy all of the regular STEM, art, music, outdoor, and swim activities, just on a smaller scale. "For safety reasons, camp will operate in smaller groups of 10 this year," says Costa, who notes that this is a 50 percent decrease from last year. "There will be opportunity for more personalized attention from staff, and kids will have consistent quality time together [and] can forge deep and long-lasting friendships."

The Meadowlands YMCA has remained open throughout the entire pandemic to provide child care to 90 children and their families, taking every possible precaution—including the thorough CDC guidelines above—all while having "a controlled environment with transparent procedures for staff, parents, and children" that Costa says will continue through the summer camp season.

Some additional procedures that campers and their parents can expect include:

  • Each camp group will stay with the same staff throughout the day to ensure social distancing and for easy contract tracing if there were to be a suspected COVID-19 case.
  • Along with staggered pick-up and drop-off times, every child's temperature will be taken and recorded daily (100.4 and over will not be able to enter camp).
  • Strict cleaning will be done hourly by staff and deep cleaning will happen each night be a professional cleaning crew.
  • Any games, sports, or activities that require contact—even a high five or fist bump—have been eliminated. For sports and games with shared equipment, like basketball, children must sanitize hands before and after, and all equipment will be sanitized in between uses.

"As a parent I have empathy for all parents when they have concerns surrounding camp," she says. "There is fear and confusion surrounding so much in our daily lives ... Our approach when talking with parents is complete transparency. No camp can guarantee that they won’t experience a case of COVID-19 this summer, but we will mitigate the risk and be highly prepared with strict policies if we suspect a case or one is reported to us."

Sleepaway Camp

Much like the Meadowlands YMCA, Ephram Caflun, director of Camp Wekeela in Hartford, Maine, plans to take every precaution when it comes to his overnight summer camp, which opened on July 9 for a five-week session. He believes that this summer, more than ever, kids need an outlet. The biggest difference? Staff and campers will basically quarantine together for the duration of camp.

"Our campus will be an 'island,'" says Caflun, who wants to rise to the occasion for all the families who feel the reward outweighs the risks when it comes to sending their kids to camp. "Parents and their children, as well as our staff, have accepted this."

This year, staff and kids ages 7 through 16 will be tested for COVID-19 before they arrive. On top of that, Caflun's purchased personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and has also developed a thorough COVID-19 response plan based on Maine's guidelines.

"For the first week, each bunk will be considered a 'family,'" says Caflun. These "families" will engage in activities and meals together, then they'll be re-tested for COVID-19 and combine with another bunk. After those two weeks are up, all of the campers will enjoy Camp Wekeela as a whole.

"My wife and I have been working day and night to make this happen," he continues. "Most parents are sending their children to camp this summer. [They] are grateful that we are taking on this Herculean effort to open camp and give their children some normalcy."

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