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It may seem hard to plan ahead for summer camp given how much things change every month during the pandemic. But parents can take comfort in knowing both day and overnight camps ran successfully last summer without COVID outbreaks and they now have a blueprint for how to operate during a pandemic. There is no doubt that after a year of remote learning for so many children, camp is needed more than ever for a summer of socializing with friends in a structured environment and taking a break from screens. Here’s how three camps provided a safe and happy summer for campers during such a difficult time.

COMMUNICATION WAS KEY

Before camps were even given the go-ahead by states to open, camp directors were making plans to revamp and adjust programs to put safety protocols in place. During this time, communication between camps and parents was imperative. Todd Rothman, owner and director of Deerkill Day Camp in Rockland County, NY said one of the most important things his team did was talk regularly with parents. “From March through June, we communicated with our camp families on a weekly basis with the information we had at the moment,” Rothman says. “This was such an uncertain time and communication from us gave parents the comfort and information they needed to make an informed decision about the summer.”

THE DECISION TO OPEN

Last spring, children were home from school doing distance learning while parents juggled working from home with helping their kids with school work. With the guidance of the American Camp Association, CDC, state and local department of health offices and meetings among fellow camp directors, camps were going through the process of deciding if they could see a safe pathway to opening camp amid COVID, while also awaiting the green light from their states to do so. “There was no question that we had the support to open from our community that was asking for camp and longing for typical childhood experiences for the summer including time with friends, fresh air and physical activity,” says Sue Rynar, director of Jeff Lake Day Camp in Stanhope.

Jon Deren, owner and director of Camp Manitou, a boys overnight camp in Maine, adds that last spring was one of the most difficult times for him both personally and professionally but he also describes that time as a calling. “Camp provides an essential service for children and never had camp looked more essential than it did last summer,” says Deren. “I felt so strongly that this is what we do as camp professionals. I wanted to give it everything I could to make camp happen. I did my research, made decision trees, asked questions and uncovered every stone to come to the conclusion that we could open safely for the summer.”

MAKING MULTI-LAYERED PLANS

There wasn’t just one protocol put in place to make camp a safe environment for children last summer, but there were numerous safety measures which when put together, mitigated the risk of COVID at camp. “Our team looked at every aspect of camp and what needed to be put in place in order to open,” explains Deren. “We had a supportive medical staff and we are fortunate to have three incredible pediatricians who come up to camp, two of whom are ER doctors in New York and Boston who had been in the trenches of COVID this spring. There was no one magic thing but a multi-layered plan for keeping campers safe.

We asked campers to quarantine at home pre-camp, tested both staff and campers before arriving at camp and after arrival, performed daily temperature checks and health assessments, eliminated trips, operated in small cohorts of campers and staff, moved activities outdoors, did intensive disinfecting and cleaning of facilities and hand washed and sanitized hands constantly.”

Once Deren knew his staff and campers were negative for COVID, cohorts were able to do more activities with other cohorts. “We designed the program so cohorts could be together outside while distancing and we let them know when masks were needed,” he says. “Even with the modifications we made, the core elements of camp that make it so special remained intact. Campers were connecting with one another, making friends, playing outdoors, staying off technology and gaining independence and confidence. We really got back to the basics of camp this summer, without the bells and whistles, which are great to have but not necessarily critical for a child to have an amazing camp experience.”

Day camps included many of the same protocols overnight camps had in place such as daily temperature checks and health assessments, small cohorts, outdoor activities, additional disinfecting of camp and constant hand washing and sanitizing. But they also had their own set of changes that needed to be made amid COVID. Rothman explains that busing was one of the biggest changes that had to be made. “We gave up door-to-door bus service and switched to central pick up locations to have children on the bus for as short an amount of time as possible. Camper’s temperatures were taken before they boarded the bus and if their temperature was elevated, they didn’t get on the bus,” Rothman adds. “We had 34 buses this year when in a typical year, we wouldn’t need this many. Our buses ran at half capacity to allow for social distancing and children wore masks on the bus. Siblings or children in the same cohort sat next to each other to minimize contact. We also had many parents drop off their children which actually turned into a silver lining because it allowed us to have more personal interaction with parents every day.”

Lunch also looked different this year at Deerkill Day Camp, as well as at many day camps. “In the past, we served hot lunches to encourage campers to try new things but this year we served individual items, which campers chose ahead of time, each morning such as sandwiches, bagels, fruit and yogurt,” says Rothman. “Campers picnicked outside, sitting spaced apart by group.”

To mitigate risk of exposure, many camps eliminated field trips and entertainment from outside of the camp community. “We used what we had and invested more thought into what we can do safely on our own campus. We concentrated on what we could do, not what we couldn’t do and we super-infused it with creativity and energy,” explains Rynar. “Jeff Lake has a unique situation with our 50-acre lake so we increased programming on the lake with kayak basketball, sailing regatta, time spent on our inflatable lake Wibit, paddle boards, canoes and party boat.”

LOOKING AHEAD TO SUMMER 2021

The good news is camps will be open in 2021 and many have already operated safely during the pandemic. Parents need to find their own comfort level when deciding on camp. “More than ever before, it’s important for parents to choose an experienced camp operator to meet the challenges that come with COVID,” Rothman says. “You should also do your own research by reading case studies and best practices from epidemiologists as well as asking a camp about their detailed plan for the summer,” Deren adds. He also suggests parents ask the camp for a reference from a family whose child attended last year.

“The emotional health and well-being of children, many of who will be coming off a year of virtual learning, should be factored into your camp decision for this upcoming summer,” Deren says. “We ran camp successfully last summer and kept COVID out of camp with good systems in place to keep children healthy. And even though camp was different, different can still be amazing.”

The American Camp Association (ACA), of New York and New Jersey, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the summer camp experience. For free advice when searching for a camp, call the ACA at 212-391-5208.