May 19, 2020 - Health

Summer camps stare down the coronavirus

Illustration of a tent with planks of wood hammered across the opening as if it's boarded up

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, many summer camps around the country are cancelling sessions — and the ones attempting to stay open are jumping through logistical hoops to do so.

Why it matters: Summer camps are a lifeline for parents trying to cope with the pandemic's exhausting double whammy of work and child care.

The big picture: Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, camps should not open if their home states aren't open and if they aren't able to screen kids and counselors for coronavirus symptoms and exposure upon arrival.

  • If camps do pass those requirements, the CDC along with the American Camp Association recommends they practice social distancing, wear masks and check temperatures frequently, among other precautions.
  • Some states say they'll allow camps to open, but have placed restrictions on their activity. Rhode Island and Connecticut have said camps can open on June 29, but Connecticut is barring sleep-away camps from running this summer. Texas is allowing camps to start as early as May 31.

"One big thing that’s shifted for us is thinking about camp less as a recreational summer activity and more as a necessary child care function," a director at a North Carolina day camp tells Axios.

What's happening: Camps from coast to coast are changing everything from their start dates to activities and staffing arrangements. "We have to reinvent every element of what we’re doing," says Jon Kidder, head of the Barrie School, a Maryland private school with a summer camp.

  • Barrie Camp is dotting its 45-acre grounds with hand-washing and sanitizing stations. Some planned activities, such as day trips, have to be cancelled because kids can't social distance on buses, says director Dan Hayden.
  • A Lake Tahoe camp cancelled its sleep-away programming, but is planning a delayed July start to its day camp and decreasing the number of slots by around 30%, per its coordinator.

And several camps are facing steep cost increases as they pursue safe reopening.

  • The North Carolina camp is doubling its staff so it can divide campers into 10-person groups that will stay together for the summer, its director tells Axios. The camp is also halving pool capacities and doing away with high-contact activities like basketball and soccer.
  • It's also reducing the day's schedule from five activities to four to add in time for hand-washing throughout the day.
  • "Financially, camp is barely viable this summer, but we decided to run it as a service to our community," the director says.

What to watch: Even the camps that are prepping to open might have to cancel if the states they're in don't see new COVID-19 cases drop by July.

And camp might go virtual:

  • Camp Supernow — founded after the coronavirus crisis began — is offering two-week sessions of Zoom camp starting in June. Kids will be sorted into virtual cabins to participate in activities like talent shows or backyard scavenger hunts.
  • Barrie Camp is also prepping a virtual option, with online activities like puppeteering and arts and crafts.

There are obvious drawbacks to moving camp online — given that it's normally all about being outside and with other kids. Children can only pay attention on Zoom for about an hour at a time, Rachel Breitenwischer, a co-founder of Supernow, says.

  • But for overwhelmed parents, "even the hour here and there is incredibly valuable as time to have back," says Lyndsey Wheeler, another Supernow co-founder.

The bottom line: Whether camp is online or in-person this summer, it'll look different. And whether or not camps can pull it off will be a test for how school might work later this year.

  • "We’re gonna learn a ton of things," Kidder says. "It’ll allow us to hit the ground running in the fall."
  • "Summer is a sacred thing," he says. "We’re doing everything we can to make sure kids can have a place for joy, even if it’s online or in their backyards."
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