Summer Camps May Go On, but They'll Look Different – What Parents Need to Know

Getty / Don Mason

It’s that time of year when most kids are counting down the days to the end of school and the start of summer. In any normal year, that summer would include days spent running and playing with friends at various summer programs and maybe even a week or more packed into a cabin with other kids at sleep-away camp.

But this isn’t any normal year. School has been out for months as parents have done their best to take over the teaching roles and kids aren’t supposed to be within six feet of each other, let alone bunked one on top of another. Will anything about this summer be normal? And what are parents who have relied on summer camps in the past supposed to do?

Related: 21 Virtual Summer Camps That Will Keep Your Little Ones Engaged

What are the safety concerns of summer camps amid COVID-19?

Pediatrician and founder of Worry Proof Consulting, Dr. Cara Natterson, M.D. says that the safety issues surrounding COVID-19 are the same as they’ve been for months. “Coronavirus is spread by respiratory droplets, and it passes through the community making some people very ill.”

It was initially believed that only the elderly and those with preexisting conditions were at risk of serious complications, but the past few months has proven that may not be as true as originally believed. And with doctors now warning of an inflammatory illness linked to COVID-19 that appears to be killing children, there may be even more reason for concern.

Of course, limiting that spread isn’t just about protecting those who may get the most seriously ill. It’s also about preventing our hospital systems from becoming overrun with patients. The first COVID-19 death reported in the United States occurred on February 29. Since that point, fewer than three months ago, almost 100,000 lives have been lost.

“If camps open, they will likely be required to follow physical-distancing guidelines, though those guidelines will vary by state,” says Dr. Natterson. “I would imagine that in many instances, kids will be asked to wear masks and to keep six feet of distance from one another. While there are many sleep-away camps still hoping to reopen, bunking together in close quarters and maintaining distance are tough to do simultaneously.”

Are some summer camps still open?

Forest Lake Camp in the Adirondacks in New York recently announced they will be taking campers this summer, albeit on a shorter, five-week summer schedule. Geoff Blanck, the owner of the camp, says, “We have created a COVID-19 Medical Advisory Board to help us make decisions on the best protocols for this summer, and members include an ER doctor, the CEO of our local health network, a pediatrician (who is also a FLC parent), and an infectious disease expert. This group is advising us on ensuring that we take additional precautions upon arrival and throughout the summer.”

He explained those precautions will likely include:
• A rigorous health check upon arrival
• Sanitizing stations throughout camp
• Additional handwashing facilities
• Reduction in density of gatherings
• Additional cleaning/disinfecting requirements

The camp is also planning on eliminating off-camp outings, competitions with other camps, and visitor’s day. And the website indicates the shorter camp schedule will allow counselors to quarantine ahead of camp and ensure all staff will be able to have the necessary PPE and equipment for remaining safe.

“With over 800 acres at the end of a dead-end road and our own private lake, we know we can continue to create life-shaping experiences for all our campers right on our property,” Blanck says. “We are extremely confident that we will be prepared to go above and beyond all recommendations and will create a safe and healthy environment for all campers and staff this summer.”

Related: Can Children Pass On the Coronavirus? Yes, but It's More Complicated Than You Think

So what should parents do about sending their kids to summer camp?

Dr. Natterson was uneasy with the idea of parents sending kids to actual sleep-away camps. She said that given the logistical hurdles, she likely wouldn’t recommend it herself. But she conceded the argument could be made that with rigorous testing procedures and efforts made to keep the camp environment closed off from the outside world, it could potentially create a safe place for kids to be.

“An environment free of coronavirus and open to healthy physical activity is the ideal,” Dr. Natterson said. “There are major hurdles here, though, like the high false-negative testing rate for coronavirus and the fact that a camp really cannot be a completely closed community because food and various services almost certainly will require people coming and going.”

Blanck believes it’s possible, though. And that kids need this normalcy right now. “Camp is a place where kids can be kids. With the isolation over the past several months, kids need the chance to see friends in a safe environment, enjoy the outdoors, and partake in all the wonderful experiences that camps have to offer.”

And there’s another piece to this he wants people to remember. “In addition to all the life-shaping experiences campers will have, camps are critical to operating as childcare facilities as well. Ensuring that camps are open and safe this summer will help parents get back to work.”

How do parents make a decision when deposits are due?

By now, most camps have made decisions regarding what their summers will look like. And many that are choosing to open are planning on limiting the number of kids they can accommodate. With limited spaces available, parents are now feeling the pressure to make a decision – even as they remain uneasy about what the weeks ahead may bring.

If they pay a large deposit on camp, what happens if a second wave hits and everything is shut down again? Or what if they simply change their minds and decide camp isn’t worth the risk? Would they just be out that money?

“Our refund policies have been updated to ensure that tuition is 100 percent refundable should we not be allowed to operate this summer or we feel it will not be safe to do so,” Blanck said. “We also offer a payment protection program where families can purchase this benefit for a small fee and ensure that their tuition is fully refundable should they opt on their own to not attend this summer.”

After a bit of research, it seems that most of the camps planning on operating this summer are offering similar changes to their refund policies. Parents should of course consult the policies at any camp they are considering, but there do seem to be more options for protecting your deposit and fees this year than ever before.

Related: The Pandemic May Have Long-Term Effects on Our Kids' Mental Health

How are summer camps keeping kids safe amid COVID-19?

Dr. Natterson says it’s ideal for camps that are opening to test counselors and childcare workers as frequently as possible. And even then, there are challenges to consider. “Unless they are living on site, they would have to be tested daily in order to guarantee that they don’t have the virus – both impractical and misleading given that a significant number of tests come back falsely negative.”

She says parents need to keep all this in mind and do the best they can. “If there’s an option to keep kids home, it’s probably the safest path.” But she recognizes that isn’t a choice all parents can make. “If parents need to return to work and child care is a necessity, choose the option that honors hygiene and distancing principles the most.”

So what does that look like? Blanck says, “While there is an element of trust to certainly send your kids to camp for a day, week, or month, we encourage all parents to do their due diligence.”

His suggestions for doing that due diligence include:
• Calling the camp director and asking about their safety plans
• Touring the property or exploring online
• Speaking to other families who are familiar with the camp

“You will see what camps are better set up for a healthy environment,” Blanck says.

How can parents prepare kids for a different kind of summer?

No matter what option you choose, this summer is going to include some stark differences from what your kids are used to. The high-fives and hugs they’ve come to expect at camps will no longer be available. Physical activities will have to include distance. And mask wearing is now going to be the expectation, not the exception.

“Whether you are sending a child to day care, camp, or anywhere else out in the world, you are going to need to do some mask teaching,” Dr. Natterson says. “Not just educating your kids about the importance of wearing one but helping them to understand why this new normal exists.”

She says for younger kids, the most effective strategy is to remind them that wearing a mask is about protecting everyone else around them from them. “Mask wearing is a sign of respect. It means: in case I have something going on with me, even if I don’t feel sick, I care enough about you to protect you.”

The most important thing is to talk to your kids about the changes they may see and the new rules they may be expected to live by so that they aren’t blindsided by these differences. It’s also probably a good idea to prepare them for the fact that there could still be more changes to come.

We’re all still adjusting to this new normal, and none of us can be sure of what to expect from the weeks and months ahead. But continuing to have open, honest conversations with our kids is one of the best ways to prepare them for whatever this coming summer may bring.

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