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Should You Still Be Planning for Summer Camp This Year?

Updated May 18, 2020:

On Monday, the American Camp Association and the YMCAs of the United States released what they’re calling a Field Guide for Camps on Implementation of CDC Guidance. The guide, developed by an environmental health consulting firm provides detailed suggestions about screening for COVID-19 before camp starts and upon arrival; managing facilities and food service; transportation; and a big one: camp group sizes. (Or as the guide calls it, the “concentric circle of infection prevention model.”) These are all just guidelines, however, so now it’s up to the individual camps to read them and decide whether opening for the summer is feasible. Some may be able to do so at a much smaller capacity than usual, and with fewer of the group activities one associates with a summer camp experience. Read on for more about how different camps have been navigating this decision for the past month.

Original story, published on May 13, 2020:

So, what is going on with summer camp this year? When we posed this question months ago, it seemed inconceivable that by this point in the spring, we still wouldn’t have a definitive answer. And yet here we are, and like with everything else related to the coronavirus pandemic, even the experts are giving us little more than elaborately worded shoulder shrugs. But we’re going to do our best to find out everything we can, because this isn’t just about whether your kids learn how to make friendship bracelets and sing silly songs — it’s about a very fundamental element of our childcare system.

As of this writing, the American Camp Association and the YMCAs of the United States are awaiting a full report from an environmental health consulting firm that will deliver guidelines about whether and how camps should open this summer. That report will consolidate CDC guidance and scientific knowledge to advise camp directors on best practices for health screening, facility maintenance, sanitation, hygiene, and camp activities. Last week, a report from the CDC “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” leaked to the press, though the White House has rejected it as an official guide. But some camps are choosing to use its advice anyway.

There are also some states that are starting to issue advisories about whether camps can open. On Monday, for example, officials in Connecticut said day camps with 30 children or less could open on June 29.

We’ll update this story as more information becomes available. Until then, this is what we know:

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Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Most camps are tentatively planning to stay open

Camp registration site CampMinder conducted a survey of of 350 camp directors and leaders on April 28 and found that 33 percent plan to open on schedule, 51 percent are planning to open with “some adjustments,” 9 percent would likely close, and 7 percent had confirmed they were closing.

It’s not entirely up to the summer camps whether to open. Some states are still in full lockdown mode, and camp season begins soon in areas where the regular school year would have ended in May. But as those restrictions lift, it’s looking like much of it will depend on region and camp size.

“We are literally waiting to see if they are going to license camps, and what types of guidelines will camps have to follow in order to be able to keep kids safe,” Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association for New York and New Jersey told NY1 last week.

That’s probably why many of the camp websites we checked haven’t even bothered to mention the possibility of closing yet. They’re remaining cautiously optimistic until the very last moment, and some are still accepting registrations with nonrefundable deposits.

Other camps are doing their best to communicate with families who have signed up for sessions this summer — even if it’s just to say, basically, that their fingers are crossed.

A number of camps have already closed

The leaked CDC guidelines outlined three phases of opening, depending on the number of cases in the area. Camps in phase one should open only for children of essential workers. In phase two, camps should open “for children who live in the local geographic area only,” and in phase three, they should still limit attendance to children who live in “low transmission areas.”

The directors at Buck’s Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp in Connecticut made the call this Monday to follow those guidelines, which pretty much rule out a sleepaway camp that attracts kids from areas that are hard-hit by the pandemic.

“For nearly two months, each of us has witnessed the impact of COVID-19, and we ache for all who are suffering, across the world and in our community,” reads the announcement from Buck’s Rock. “We made our decision based on science and public health guidelines. The known and unknown risks of transmission conflict with our fundamental commitment to the health and safety of our families.”

Parents from all over the country — even in low-transmission areas — have told us their camps have also canceled for the whole summer long before government officials have had their say about it.

“In respect to our families and staff who need to be able to plan for their summer, we cannot wait any longer when we already have enough information to make an informed decision,” Buck’s Rock told its community.

In the absence of this decision by some camps, parents are making the call for their own kids, cancelling — or just not bothering to enroll their kids. According to the CampMinder survey enrollment is down by 18 percent, and cancellations are up 35 percent compared to 2019.

That’s slightly good news if, like me, you are still contemplating sending your kids to a local day camp — one that’s pledging to follow all the recommended social distancing guidelines —  but have been putting off sending in those hefty, sometimes nonrefundable fees and deposits. Camps that normally fill up by February may suddenly have an opening for your kids.

There is a virtual camp solution

As regular school and extracurricular class providers have been doing for months, some of the closed camps are offering virtual alternatives for their campers. For many, that seems like a pretty pitiful swap. Zoom can work fine for art  and music classes, but it’s not exactly the best way to teach kids how to swim, play sports, or build a campfire. (“Yay, more homeschooling!” said zero parents.)

Still, we are going to need a way to fill in all those vacant hours once school remote learning ends, so it might make sense to sign up for online classes. Check around to see if local businesses, museums, and even parks are offering one-off classes or a whole course in something that piques your kids’ interest. You may be surprised by who is eager to teach your kids, like, say the Sands Point Preserve in Long Island, where a biologist is going to lead families on a live tour of the pond’s wildlife.

There are a handful of companies poised to fill the camp gap for parents:

  • Outschool offers classes in everything from astronomy to hip-hop dance to reading and writing. Some courses meet weekly, while others meet every day for a week. Students have the chance to interact with their teachers in live video chats and can also ask them questions outside of their sessions.
  • Camp Supernow, from the founders of the virtual singles meet-up site Here/Now, is another attempt to bring the traditional camp experience online. Kids ages 5-11 can form a “cabin” with six to 10 of their own friends, or they can choose to make new friends. In a weeklong session, they meet with a camp counselor on Zoom for an hour every weekday for crafts, movement, science experiments, and “virtual field trips.”
  • You can turn your older kids’ video-game habit into a slightly more constructive online camp experience, via the esports camps organized by Nerd Street Gamers. The weeklong camps run from 10 am to 3 pm and feature coaching, guest speakers, and tournament play.

Even with these options, you might still find yourself in the role of camp counselor, so it’s time to get creative. Toy makers and subscription boxes like KiwiCo can help you fill your time with structured activities. And what the heck, with all that money you’re saving on camp, maybe you can even buy that above-ground pool, you know, for swimming lessons.

The only thing we haven’t figured out, unfortunately, is how to tell our bosses that we can’t report to work because we have an intense capture-the-flag game to run for the day.

Here are some of our favorite online and offline activities for keeping kids busy when they’re stuck at home.

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