When Kanakuk Kamps, a prominent network of Christian camps in Missouri, opened their five overnight camps on May 30, parents could feel assured by what they read in camp materials that protocols were organized, and in place, to keep children and staff safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, on June 26, families were notified by mass-email that the camp known as “K-2,” in Lampe, had two positive cases. Two days later the number was 42. Then 82. The Stone County Health Department is monitoring the outbreak, but the people really forced to deal with the fallout are the families themselves.
Like other sleep-away camps around the country still open this summer, Kanakuk had recommended pre-camp quarantine, a form of social distancing on site, enhanced sanitation practices, daily temperature checks and custom face coverings provided for campers. But it’s impossible to plan for a cluster. In Texas, the Pine Cove Camp also experienced a smaller outbreak this week and announced it would be closing for some sessions.
Mia Chase, from the Dallas area, drove all night to pick up her sons on Friday, July 3 from K-2 camp. Other parents like her scrambled over the holiday weekend to drive, sometimes long distances, to pick up their children. Children and staff were sent home to 10 states and all over Missouri.
Chase says that, as the cases mounted, there was a notable lack of immediate communication about the severity of the COVID outbreak.
The parent of a young staff member expressed a similar frustration with a lack of communication between the camp and parents.
“There was 0 communication or efforts made from Kanakuk to contact us regarding the closure. Nothing!” Chase wrote Kanakuk’s president and health services in an email obtained by NBC News.
A co-director at the K-2 camp, Don Ford, spoke with Chase and her husband on Tuesday. He apologized, she said, that they had not been contacted directly when the camp decided to end its term.
In her detailed email, she notes her son’s rising anxiety as his bunk began to drain of campers. By the time he reached her by phone late on the night of July 2, she writes, his bunk was down to three campers, from 10, and the other two were scheduled to be picked up.
One of Chase’s sons told her that on July 1 that staff members corralled the campers in a large group to announce the end of camp because of multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Why were campers put at risk for further exposure and spread by gathering everyone as a large group inside the K-Dome instead of being sent to their respective cabins and informed there by their cabin leaders?” Chase asked the camp’s leadership in her email.
In her conversation with Ford, Chase recalls, “He didn’t give a straight answer as to why kids were gathered in the K-Dome for the announcement.” Though he did assure her that, “moving forward they are currently looking at what changes need to take place to enforce better social distancing.”
Her son claims that campers assembled again that night for what he called a "mosh-pit-style" dance party. “There was no social distancing in this mosh pit,” Chase wrote. Many children, her son said, did not wear a mask. Campers were given Kanakuk-branded "face buffs" for facial coverings.
Chase said that one of her sons told her that he had received a COVID-19 nasal swab test, but that she was neither informed about the testing nor received any results. The camp had called, she underscores, when there was a tick on her other son.
Chase plans to test her sons for COVID-19 and follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining. But what remains unclear from Kanakuk is how many counselors and campers were confirmed positive, and who or how many of them may have come into direct contact with her sons.
“I am angry that my kids were obviously exposed unnecessarily.” Chase said by phone, noting that her whole family was now at risk.
Kanakuk did not respond to requests for comment and has not released any public statements on their website or social media. Officially the four other Kanakuk camps are still open.
But coronavirus cases apparently haven’t been confined to the K-2 camp, several parents told NBC News.
Abby Stewart, whose son was at the K-1 camp in Taney County, told NBC News that an email went to parents late Monday night that K-1 had a confirmed COVID case. Camp, she learned, was now ending the session midterm and sending both campers and counselors home. Her daughter, at the K-West camp near Lampe, in Stone County, is still there.
Kara Miller, community health educator at the Taney County Health Department, told NBC News that health officials were working with Kanakuk and the Stone County Health Department to make sure the children are safe, but neither confirmed nor denied the reports of positive cases outside of K-2 camp.
As news about Kanakuk trickled out, Amy Smith, whose daughter considered working at the camp, posted on Twitter the COVID risk waiver that staff and volunteers were asked to sign.
“I hereby voluntarily release, waive and forever discharge any and all claims against Kanakuk Ministries, its board of directors, officers, employees, volunteers, agents and all other persons or entities affiliated with Kanakuk or acting on its behalf that relate in any way to COVID-19, including but not limited to any claim arising from or relating to my exposure to, infection with, or other harm related to COVID-19,” the waiver reads. “While performing the services and/or following my performance of the services, and also including harm related to my spread of COVID-19 to others including my family members. I further agree to reimburse Kanakuk for attorney fees incurred related to enforcing this waiver provision.”
Smith told NBC News that her daughter, who was supposed to start working at one of the Kanakuk camps next week, received the waiver two weeks ago. Her daughter decided not to go.
The Missouri Health Department told NBC News that it was not planning to close any of the Kanakuk Kamps. That left Smith disappointed.
“I can’t believe the health department isn’t shutting them down completely,” she said.
According to Health Administrator Pam Burnett, Kanakuk has informed the Stone County Health Department that an outside cleaning company will clean the K-2 camp. Camp will reopen July 15, and campers will return July 18. Sessions have been shortened moving forward to two one-week terms.
“They're rebooting, so to speak — cleaning, having the 14-day quarantine, and then they're going to restart,” Burnett said. “And so then we'll address something if another positive case pops up.”
But not everyone believes camp should reopen. Dr. Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Washington University, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the camp should immediately close all its terms. Newland and his wife have previously sent their daughters to Kanakuk Kamps, but decided against it for this summer.
“This just isn’t worth it,” he told the paper. “Just close them down.”