No one has a crystal ball that can tell us exactly what the summer will look like with COVID. But we do know that both day and overnight camps in states that allowed for camps to open last summer operated successfully last summer amid the global pandemic. And we know that campers had a safe, healthy and fun summer. Camps have put numerous health and safety protocols in place to mitigate the risk of infection at camp with guidance from the American Camp Association, the CDC and state and local department of health offices. While no environment is totally risk-free from COVID, summer camps in 2020 ran with very few positive COVID cases and were able to offer safe programs where children enjoyed a summer outdoors.
There are a number of changes that both day and overnight camps implemented in 2020, many that you can also expect to see this summer. Decisions on the camp program and safety protocols will be finalized closer to the summer depending on COVID infection rates at the time. While camps certainly looked different in 2020 than in past summers, the fundamentals of camp being a place for children to try new things, make new friends, take a break from screens, gain independence and build confidence all remained the same.
Here are some changes made last year that kept campers safe during the pandemic:
DAILY TEMPERATURE CHECKS
Each day, children were required to have their temperatures taken, either at home, at the bus stop or at camp. If your child had a fever, he or she was asked to stay home for a certain number of days and may have been asked to get a COVID test or note from their pediatrician before returning to camp.
DAILY HEALTH SCREENINGS
Every morning families filled out a health screening with questions about how their children were feeling. If they were exhibiting any COVID symptoms or had traveled to certain states, they were asked to stay home from camp.
Camps ran at a reduced capacity for social distancing guidelines.
Many camps held activities outside, reducing the risk of spreading the virus. Camps were able to maximize their outdoor space and rethink it to run programs outdoors as much as possible.
Camps set up additional hand washing and hand sanitizer stations and hand hygiene became a top priority before and after activities. Many camp directors reported a decrease in common illnesses over the summer likely because of diligent hand hygiene.
Camp groups acted as cohorts that stayed together throughout the day and didn’t intermingle with other groups. The size of these cohorts for 2021 will depend on state guidelines but last summer in New Jersey, cohorts consisted of 20 campers. Cohorts were used so if a child or staff member tested positive for COVID, the cohort/pod could be quarantined and it wouldn’t affect the rest of camp.
Camps have always cleaned and disinfected equipment and activity areas but since COVID, those cleanings increased throughout the day and included a deeper cleaning.
To limit the number of people gathering, lunch times were staggered and meals were eaten outside. How lunch was served looked different than in past summers with many camps moving away from buffet to pre-packaged lunches.
Because camps ran activities outside for the most part, some camps built in “rain days” last summer, very much like snow days. On extremely wet days, camp was canceled.
Staff wore masks at New Jersey day camps when social distancing couldn’t be maintained and campers wore masks on buses and when distancing between cohorts couldn’t be maintained.
CHANGE IN ACTIVITIES
Certain activities were eliminated because of too much contact with other people or equipment.
Due to social distancing guidelines, last summer there were fewer children on each bus. Masks were required and children sat alone, with a child from their cohort or with a sibling in their household.
Outside of camp trips were canceled last summer. Final decisions on them for 2021 will occur closer to summer when directors can evaluate where the state is with COVID.
The use of COVID tests played an important role in how overnight camps operated safely last summer. Both campers and staff were required to take a test a number of days before arriving at camp and then again once at camp. Testing wasn’t a magic bullet but was used as part of a multi-layered system to mitigate the risk of COVID.
DAILY HEALTH SCREENINGS
Like at day camps, campers had their temperatures taken each morning and a health screening was given daily at overnight camp.
With the goal of all campers being able to come together after a period of time, many overnight camps had cohorts or families where campers started together and only intermingled with their cohort for the first 2-3 weeks of camp. As time went on and camp was deemed COVID-free, campers came together while also maintaining distancing between other cohorts.
Overnight camps used their vast outdoor space to help mitigate the risk of COVID and spent as much time outdoors as possible which reduced the risk of spreading COVID.
Masks were used when social distancing couldn’t be maintained between cohorts or at all camp gatherings.
While competitions with other camps have been a tradition of overnight camps, last year they were eliminated to mitigate the risk of COVID.
As with day camps, there was an increase in cleaning and disinfecting around camp from equipment to facilities.
Camps increased hand hygiene among campers and staff with additional hand washing stations and frequency and hand sanitizing throughout the day. Overnight camp directors also reported less common sicknesses likely because of the additional hand hygiene.
ALL CAMP GATHERINGS
One of the most special parts of overnight camp is when the whole camp comes together for gatherings. After it was deemed safe to come together, these larger camp gatherings were able to resume.
Campers ate outside more frequently and some camps staggered meal times.
Last summer, overnight camps that ran didn’t offer a visiting day for parents to ensure the bubble they created at camp remained COVID-free. Decisions on visiting days will be made closer to the summer depending on rates of infection at the time.
Trips outside camp were eliminated last summer. What field trips will look like this summer will depend on what the rates of COVID infection are in states camps are located in and where campers are have traveled.
—Jess Michaels is the director of communications for the American Camp Association (ACA), NY and NJ, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the summer camp experience.