IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Swimming, s'mores and social distancing: Is summer camp during the pandemic worth it?

“Any kind of an experience at a summer camp in 2020 is going to be a different experience,” one pediatric infectious diseases physician said.
Campers and a counselor in a face mask go on a socially-distanced nature hike at Camp Wilani in Veneta, Oregon. The camp just hosted its first campers of the COVID-19 era last week.
Campers and a counselor in a face mask go on a socially-distanced nature hike at Camp Wilani in Veneta, Oregon. The camp just hosted its first campers of the COVID-19 era last week.Camp Wilani

While on a nature hike at Camp Wilani in Veneta, Oregon, last week, five young campers crowded around an interesting bug before being gently reminded by staff members to spread out. Later, the children played badminton with 6 feet of space separating them. During archery, canoeing and arts and crafts, they took frequent breaks to pump hand sanitizer into their palms.

The small group of elementary and middle schoolers was attending a special four-day session just for children of essential workers — Camp Wilani’s first foray into operating a day camp while abiding by the strict new guidelines instituted by public health officials amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The children seemed unfazed by staff in masks and gloves, and did not mind having their temperatures checked each morning at dropoff, said Elissa Kobrin, the executive director of Camp Fire Wilani, the youth organization that runs Camp Wilani.

Camp Fire Wilani executive director Elissa Kobrin checks every camper's temperature upon arrival each morning with a no-touch thermometer.Camp Wilani

“They are absolutely rolling with it,” Kobrin said. “I think they’re just really excited to see other kids.”

In a year when children across the country have been stuck indoors for months, ripped from their normal routines and separated from their friends, the joys and freedoms of camp are more necessary than ever, many camp proponents say.

But with no reliable treatment or vaccine yet for the coronavirus, the arrival of summer has created a dilemma for the $18 billion summer camp industry, which serves 20 million children. Many camp directors and parents are wondering: Will camp be able to operate safely? And if so, will it still feel like camp?

With its sprawling 219-acre property and completely outdoor schedule, Camp Wilani felt like it could guarantee both.

But there are no statistics yet on how many of the 14,000 camps across the United States will operate, if their local areas even allow them to, according to the American Camp Association, a nonprofit accrediting body for the nation’s camps.

While some camps are still weighing whether to run, others have made the difficult choice to skip this season.

In Sapphire, North Carolina, Jim and Denice Dunn, the co-executive directors of a girls sleepaway camp called Camp Merrie-Woode, still get choked up when they talk about the decision they made last month to not hold camp this summer for the first time in Merrie-Woode’s 101-year history.

Camp Merrie-Woode was founded in 1919 and has never shuttered for a summer. "It made it through polio, it made it through the world wars," co-executive director Denice Dunn said.Stephen Torrence / Camp Merrie-Woode

The girls who attend are like family members to them, and stay in touch for decades after they age out of camp: The Dunns said they have attended the weddings of dozens of their former campers over the years.

The summer traditions that the Dunns treasure — such as having the more than 200 campers gather around in a circle to sing “Taps” each evening, their hands interlaced — would pose a risk if they were to hold camp this summer, they felt.

“It’s not the loss of a loved one, but it’s the loss of a summer.”

And Jim Dunn worried that a mild case of the coronavirus in a camper could be mistaken for something more benign, like homesickness.

“We’re wrestling with the five stages of grief,” he said. “It’s not the loss of a loved one, but it’s the loss of a summer.”

The guidelines camps must adhere to — and what experts think

Camps are governed by federal, state and local laws, and there is a patchwork of regulations across the country for them this summer.

Some states, like Connecticut, have decided to allow day camps to open June 29 but have barred residential camps, while others, like Texas, allowed both day and residential camps to start as early as May 31.

Camps that will be open are following protocols that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designed, plus local and state guidelines, as well as an extensive guide jointly created by the American Camp Association and the YMCA of the USA.

For many, following the public health guidance means restructuring the entire camp day: The CDC recommends that campers be kept in cohorts that do all activities together, as opposed to mixing with other groups.

“These groups become like family households. You can socialize with them, but between you and another family, you are physically distanced,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, explaining that if there were to be a suspected or a confirmed case of COVID-19, this would make it easier to do contact tracing and monitor for additional cases.

Rosenberg said the changes and closures are expected to result in a loss in the billions for the summer camp industry.

Even camps that are open with limited enrollment will see a financial hit: At Camp Wilani, which will welcome children ages 5 through 17 starting at the end of June, the total number of campers per session will be limited to 25, divided into five groups to minimize contact. In prior summers, the camp had up to 60 campers per week.

At Camp Champions, a co-ed, overnight camp in Marble Falls, Texas, co-executive director Steve Baskin consulted with multiple infectious diseases doctors and public health professionals before choosing to open for the summer.

A camper who came to Camp Champions in 2016 as a self-professed athlete discovered that he also loved ceramics.Sam Fisher / Camp Champions

Among the changes he plans to implement are having kids eat in shifts so they are not all gathered in the dining hall at once; taking children’s temperatures every morning; and having campers frequently wash their hands for the CDC-recommended 20 seconds at a time.

“We will probably think of the right camp song that lasts for 20 seconds,” he said of the hand-washing.

“People in later years will repeat it as a badge of honor: ‘I was there during the mask year.’”

Staff will wear masks in some situations, but campers generally will not, he said, unless they are in the health center or participating in a campwide activity that involves loud cheering and yelling. He said he does not worry that the precautions will ruin the magic of camp.

“People in later years will repeat it as a badge of honor: ‘I was there during the mask year,’” Baskin said.

If a camper were to test positive for the coronavirus or have a suspected case of it, the child would leave camp within eight hours, per Texas state mandate.

Baskin feels parents, not campers, pose the greatest threat of spreading the coronavirus, so unlike prior years, they will remain in their cars during dropoff and pickup.

While children have generally experienced more mild symptoms of the coronavirus than adults, there have been rare severe or even fatal pediatric cases, and whether camps can safely run this summer is a “difficult question,” said Dr. David Kimberlin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a pediatric infectious diseases physician.

“I think some considerations could be made for being able to do it on a relatively safe basis,” Kimberlin, who has been a summer camp doctor since 2009, said.

But, he added, “Any kind of an experience at a summer camp in 2020 is going to be a different experience.”

“It’s going to be focused on density reduction, it's going to be focused on social distancing, it’s going to be focused on masking,” Kimberlin said. “Many camps, very understandably, are saying, ‘Look, that’s not what we want to provide, and we’re going to sit this one out and be ready for 2021.’”

A difficult choice for parents

The unexpected loss of camp is distressing for campers as well as for their parents, many of whom are now in a crunch.

Melissa Libert of Bloomington, Illinois, is not sure she would have felt comfortable sending her 9-year-old son to the day camp he has gone to for years and loves. When the camp announced in early May that it would not operate, Libert felt relieved she did not have to make the choice herself — but she was suddenly left without child care she had banked on.

“No matter how understanding your boss and your teammates are, it’s just completely unsustainable to keep working from home with children right now.”

“No matter how understanding your boss and your teammates are, it’s just completely unsustainable to keep working from home with children right now,” Libert, who works in development at a National Public Radio member station at Illinois State University, said.

Her son was good about doing his schoolwork independently while sheltering in place at home, but now, with remote school ending, she feels she needs to hire a babysitter to watch him a few times a week to keep him occupied as she starts going back into the office.

“His summer camp has amazing staff and all sorts of adventures all summer, and now we have nothing,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Vanessa, a community college instructor who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy, has little qualms about sending her three kids to a sleepaway camp in Arkansas in late June.

The sleepaway camp is open and implementing social distancing guidelines, plus other changes to its normal operations due to the pandemic. Her children, especially her 9-year-old son, an outgoing kid who just won an award from school for being the friendliest student in class, miss face-to-face time with peers.

“It seems to me that the risk is lower than what I worry the culmination of the psychological impact of them being stuck at home all summer, without interacting with peers in a controlled environment, will be.”

“There is some risk, obviously, they could contract it,” Vanessa acknowledged. “It seems to me that the risk is lower than what I worry the culmination of the psychological impact of them being stuck at home all summer, without interacting with peers in a controlled environment, will be.”

Going to camp is, of course, a privilege afforded to families who have the means to enroll their children.

But the pandemic has shuttered summer programs that were once accessible to kids from disadvantaged families, too: In New York City, for example, the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit that sends thousands of children from underserved communities to sleepaway camps for free in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley, is not doing so this summer. Instead, it will conduct outdoor adventures in the city with them, and has introduced a family camp program for low-income families on its summer campgrounds.

‘Kids need camp right now — even if that person is 6 feet away’

If camps do decide to open, it is critical they come up with a carefully thought-out plan on avoiding and containing the spread of the coronavirus, Kimberlin said. He advised both day and sleepaway camps to continually assess in real-time whether their plans are working as the summer progresses.

For some camp directors, that did not feel like enough. Lori and Joey Waldman are the owners and directors of Camp Blue Ridge, a co-ed sleepaway camp in Clayton, Georgia. This would have been the camp’s 51st summer in operation, but after long, painful discussions, the Waldmans decided to not open.

“At the end of the day, we had to look each other in the eye and say, ‘Can we live with the what-ifs and the God-forbids?’ And every time I thought about that question, I got really, really uncomfortable, and Joey did too,” Lori Waldman said.

Campers try to win tug-of-war at Camp Blue Ridge in 2018. "We're still grieving and nauseous" over not opening this summer, co-owner and director Lori Waldman said.Camp Blue Ridge

Kobrin, the Oregon youth program director, has confidence in Camp Wilani’s protocols for the summer, and she is hopeful that her camp staff will serve as mentors to the children during a time when they could benefit from them the most.

“Kids need camp right now — even if that person is 6 feet away, even if that person is wearing a mask, even if they can’t interact with them in the traditional way they would any other year,” she said. “They can still talk about the things they miss, and the things that have been hard.”

Still, Kobrin said, each family must individually decide if they are comfortable sending their child to camp this year.

“This thing is real, and we’re going to do everything we can to mitigate it,” she said. “At the same time, if somebody has a vulnerable family member who is sick or immunocompromised or elderly, it may not be the year to send your child to camp.”