This time last year, the novel coronavirus was still so new that many camps, unsure about the dangers of transmission and facing public health restrictions, closed for the summer or switched to online programming.
Now, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the picture is brighter with adult vaccines rolling out, cases declining and restrictions loosening. Many camp officials – and families – are eager for a return to in-person camps and the joy they’ll bring kids who have spent an unprecedented amount of time at home. But with the pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, camps are working hard and making changes to ensure they can operate safely.
“There’s a great need for children to be at summer camp. If there’s ever a time for kids to be out of doors in a recreational setting, it would be now,” says Vicki Flaig, the incoming chair of the American Camp Association’s Northern California Local Council of Leaders. “I know people are worried about the loss of learning, given the nature of distance learning, and I think what a lot of camps can offer supports that.”
For “the mental health of the participants, it will reduce some anxiety, get some normality and find some ways to cope that are healthy,” adds Flaig, who is also director of operations for Ronald McDonald House Camp at Eagle Lake, an overnight camp in Lassen County for campers with developmental, emotional and physical disabilities.
The American Camp Association, an industry group, estimates that only 18 percent of its members’ overnight camps and 60 percent of day camps operated in-person programs nationwide last summer. But it expects a significant increase this year and says the experience of camps that operated without COVID outbreaks last year will help pave the way.
Lessons From Last Summer
One camp that managed to operate both day and limited overnight camps last summer was Kennolyn Camps in Soquel in the Santa Cruz Mountains, though it could take only county residents. Kennolyn hosted more than 600 campers with no known COVID outbreaks and is seeing strong demand for its camps this summer.
With testing less available last summer, the camp relied on pre-screening; health and temperature checks; small, stable groups of campers with the same counselors; mask-wearing and rigorous cleaning protocols, among other safety measures, says Camps Director Andrew Townsend. With 400 acres, there’s plenty of room to spread out groups.
Courtney Pantos of Scotts Valley sent her two daughters, Athena, 10, and Teresa, 7, to Kennolyn’s day camp last summer. Then Athena attended overnight camp and the entire family attended two sessions of family camp.
“I was willing to take the leap of faith with them because I had a lot of trust they were going to be thorough and conscientious about how they ran the camp,” says Pantos, whose older daughter had attended Kennolyn previously. “I remember the feeling of dropping them off and it being a pretty emotional experience. I was so thankful they had done so much work and put in so much effort to pull it off.”
“Like so many things in life, COVID-wise, the benefits start to seem to outweigh the risks,” she added. “You see the kids are coming home happier, they’re more playful, you see them light up and have stories to tell. You get that sense of them having normalcy and a break from the tensions and regulations that are everywhere else.”
Kennolyn is now gearing up for a full summer of day and overnight camps at 60 percent capacity, Townsend says. While the state of California had yet to release overnight camp guidelines, Kennolyn was planning similar safety measures as last summer, with the addition of testing for overnight campers. Some longtime traditions, like field trips to the beach and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, will not happen as a safety precaution.
Frequent communication with families is key, Townsend says.
“We want everyone considering coming to understand what camp will look like as best as we can so they have plenty of time to make a decision,” he says. “The vast majority are very excited about camp.”
Following the Recommendations
In a survey of 486 camps serving 90,000 campers last summer, the American Camp Association found 74 camps, or 15 percent, reported at least one COVID-19 case. There were a total of 30 campers and 72 staff with COVID. The association found that camps where face coverings were worn consistently had a two-thirds reduction in COVID-19 risk, and it recommends continued use of face coverings, physical distancing, cohorts, hand washing and pre-camp at-home quarantines for overnight campers.
Legarza Sports also ran day camps last summer throughout the Bay Area and continued to do so during the school year, making adjustments to meet different counties’ guidelines. The camp, which offers basketball, volleyball and all-sports camps for boys and girls in grade K-8, instituted safety measures including small groups, masks, social distancing, frequent hand sanitizing, individual equipment use, and staggered drop-off and pick-up times.
“We look forward to summer knowing we have been boots on the ground the whole time,” says Stephanie Retchless, communications manager.
EDMO, another popular Bay Area-based camp, ran only online camps last summer but is preparing to welcome in-person campers this year. But camps for grades pre-K-5 will be much smaller than usual, with 24 to 36 campers per site, instead of the usual 150 or more. They’ll be in small, stable groups with one instructor. The camp is also using alternate sites since many schools are not available.
“We’re prioritizing kids’ safety first, from tons of (personal protective equipment) to staff cleaning protocols to open windows,” says Executive Director and Co-Founder Ed Caballero. “I’ve never has to ask in the past (of facilities): ‘When was the last time you’ve updated your HVAC system’ or ‘What’s the MERV rating of your air filter?’ There are so many things involved in reopening safely.”
EDMO, which blends STEAM and social-emotional learning with themes including Engineering With Empathy and Sensory Scientists, also plans to continue its online options and offer an at-home camp where parents can hire an EDMO instructor to come to their home to work with a pod.
Townsend of Kennolyn, a father himself, says it will be particularly important this summer for families to work in partnership with camps and be both understanding that this is a different year and responsible during time outside camp to keep everyone safe.
“You’re not just a customer anymore. You’re really part of something and you have a responsibility, too,” he says. “If everybody works together we can pull off something special for these kids, but it’s going to take all of us.”