Across the country, parents of school-age children are waiting to hear whether summer camps will open for business this season. It’s a fraught subject for families who have already weathered weeks of online classes, cacophonous Zoom playdates, and mountains of at-home art projects.
“It’s all the moms are talking about,” says Jill Kargman, the author and star of the series Odd Mom Out, of her conversations with friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “The kids desperately want to get out of the house and parents want that defibrillator shock to their relationship which comes when you actually get to be alone with your partner.”
The American Camp Association, a non profit organization that represents over 3,100 summer camps, has not issued specific recommendations to its members. Instead, it has suggested they wait for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and individual state governments, which isn’t expected for several weeks. But that hasn’t stopped some institutions from boldly (and prematurely) announcing they’ll be open for business as usual.
It's a mixed message at best. “What a lot of families are struggling with is that they're all sharing the emails that are being sent out by their camps,” says Jeff Konigsberg, owner and director of Takajo and Tripp Lake camps in Maine. “And so on some levels those that are eager to be cheerleaders and present a positive message are also creating some fear in the minds of parents.”
Konigsberg has not committed to opening this summer, although he announced last week that he hoped to have an abbreviated season starting July 11 at both camps. “But that’s contingent on a lot of things. Our priority is to make sure the children will be safe.” Other camps, including Camp Laurel, which Kargman attended when she was a child, have sent out similar notices.
Takajo, Tripp Lake, and Laurel are among a small group of exclusive camps with devoted multi-generation alumni, long waiting lists, and hefty price tags ($13,000 and up for seven weeks, not including special programs and excursions). Although most are located in rustic settings, they all offer pristine facilities and world class instruction.
For the most part, Konigsberg’s clientele has been supportive. “They very much want camp to be open but they also understand how complicated the situation is.” It has probably helped that he has offered to reimburse tuition to anyone who decides against sending their child. “I want to take the financial component off the table so it won’t be part of the parents' decision process,” he says.
More Than Clorox Wipes
Along with talking with other camp directors and the American Camp Association, Konigsberg has been consulting a network of private experts. “I am very fortunate to have access to some of the top professionals in epidemiology and infectious disease and am seeking their counsel trying to put together protocols.”
One addition he’ll make to each camp is satellite medical facilities. “If your child comes to our health center, they will be greeted outside the building by one of our medical professionals who would ask you, how can we help you?” If there are any Covid symptoms, they would be taken to the satellite facility.” This year, Konigsberg will hire additional medical staff, so each camp will have two full time doctors and 10 nurses.
Konigsberg is also changing the rules at the dining halls so children eat in shifts at the same table as their bunk mates. “It’s all about more space. We're not packing them in like in a school lunchroom.”
But he acknowledges all of these changes are theoretical—until he hears from the CDC. “To paraphrase [New York] Governor Cuomo, 'Anybody who tells you they know what’s going to happen in two weeks is a liar.'”
Meanwhile, Back Home
“I joke about shipping the kids off, but they’re the ones who really want to go,” says Kargman of her camp-age children. “They begin packing in January.” Jennifer Muhlrad has the same experience. She is the CEO of an electronics supply company and lives with her two young teenage daughters in New York City. “It’s all they ever want to talk about with each other. I’m like, ‘Your mother is an interesting person, you know. You could talk to her once in a while’ ”
Both worry about missed opportunities. “They have these great friends they make forever, which is really great, especially for the girls when shit gets bitchy in middle school. They always have the life raft of their camp friends.”
Muhlrad is concerned about what her daughters will do after being cooped up all spring. “I joke with my youngest that her new camp will be working for me and learning about insurance claims and bank loans.”
Muhlrad decided she had to prepare for bad news from her camp and rented a house in Long Island. “It has a pool and is near my mother. At least the kids can be outside for part of the week.” Even this process turned out to be difficult. “The rental market has gone crazy because of people wanting to get out of the city.”
Kargman and her husband are counting on their camp being open, albeit for an abbreviated season and one without a parents' weekend. “We’re a little freaked out. We’ve never been away from our kid for that long.”
Katherine Keltner, an artist who lives in Brooklyn, has come up with another solution. She and her husband were planning on sending their 10-year-old daughter to camp for the first time this summer for four weeks. “If it’s cancelled, we may band together with a few friends and take turns taking care each other's kids—a sort of Camp Co-op.”
Many camps promise children an unforgettable summer. That will no doubt be the case for this year's crop of eager campers, wherever they end up.
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