Informal backyard summer camps are popping up on New York's Long Island as professional summer camps close amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Most of the camps are being run by high school and college students who want to help engage kids while they're stuck at home for the summer.
But the legality and health risks of these camps remain unclear.
The New York Health Department told Insider that all camps need to be registered with the state, and experts told Insider that the camps can be risky health-wise.
Backyard camp organizers told Insider that they're putting safety measures in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that the first couple weeks have been successful.
Brooke Lewitas, a college junior, was home on New York's Long Island after the coronavirus pandemic shut down George Mason University for the rest of the year.
Her mind turned to the summer. Every year, millions of kids go to overnight and day camps, but the pandemic threw a wrench in those plans.
Lewitas and a friend, Emmie Levy, came up with the idea to start The Camp Girls, where they'd host summer camps in the backyards of suburban Long Island homes instead.
"We kind of knew that there was a big need in the community for childcare, and we saw what other people were doing with these backyard camps," Lewitas told Insider. "We realized that she and I could do it really well — we're a little bit older than a lot of the other girls that are offering it, and we have a lot of experience."
Lewitas and Levy's camp runs Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. They're offering activities like tie-dye, arts and crafts, dance and fitness sessions, relay races, water games and more. They also provide supplies and individually packed snacks for each child, at $50 per child per session, which can be held at a backyard "provided and predetermined by parents."
A quick search through Nassau County-related Facebook groups finds dozens of high school and college students advertising for such camps through vibrant flyers, promising "color wars," sports, arts and crafts, and more.
The camps typically cost around $50 per child per day, with most organizers saying they'd travel to a backyard anywhere in Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk counties and adhere to safety measures parents are comfortable with. Some make parents sign safety waivers, while others plan on checking kids' temperatures while encouraging them to social distance.
It's not clear if these camps are legal. Organizers can bill their informal backyard camps as babysitting, especially if they're conducting one-day sessions. But most nurseries and professional camps have to be licensed for the liability they take on as long-term caretakers, according to New York state's Division of Child Care Services and Department of Health.
Regardless, backyard camp organizers told Insider that their sessions are filling up.
Lewitas told Insider that children are eager for social interaction after months of not seeing friends during the pandemic.
"These kids haven't gone to school and it can be very isolating, so we're really excited to help them reconnect with their friends with a kind of fun," she said.
Most camps are run by high school and college students, who are also stuck home for the summer
Lewitas led her school's chapter of Camp Kesem, a summer camp for kids whose parents have or have had cancer. Levy was a head counselor at a camp in Pennsylvania and planned to take the job up again this year — before the pandemic hit.
For the camp, they're taking any age group, but most kids who have signed up are between eight and 10. They're taking a minimum of four kids to start a day of activities.
Ahead of each session, Lewitas and Levy are giving campers individual camp kits that include everything they'd need for the day so they wouldn't have to share with others. The kits include snacks to eat throughout the day as well as items needed for crafts and other games.
The two founders, who are based in Syosset, New York, have been practicing social distancing and wearing masks since the start of the pandemic, but Lewitas said that the camp's daily organization is partially up to the parents.
"We definitely want input from parents as to what they feel comfortable," she said. "If they're like, 'You can come inside," we would probably say, 'No thank you,' because it's important to us to have that reputation that we've been good."
They are also considering ways to encourage social distancing between kids at camp, including giving each child a hula hoop to stand in for the day.
Alyssa Reifer, a high school student in Farmingdale, also on Long Island, is also taking precautions with Revamp Camp, a backyard camp she launched with four friends.
She ordered "Revamp" face masks for the group, and said they're taking kids' temperatures and having families sign waivers to ensure no one's been in contact with anyone who's had COVID-19 in the two weeks leading up to the camp session.
Reifer told Insider that they're only having activities where kids "are safe and having fun at the same time."
"We're also making sure that all our activities are 'COVID-safe,' you could say. None of our activities will have the kids more than 6 feet together," she said. "We're making sure we're not doing activities where they'd be sharing items constantly."
The safety of backyard camps will 'depend on who attends'
Research on children and the coronavirus has drawn renewed attention as the country debates reopening schools in the fall despite the epidemic in the US being orders of magnitude worse than in other developed countries.
Children are at lower risk than adults of contracting the virus, as well as less likely to transmit it to others, though research on the issue remains ongoing.
The safety of each camp will ultimately "depend on who attends," Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, told Insider in an email.
"If the children are all from one family or are already clustering together in one 'bubble,' then the main safety issue to consider will be the organizers/counselors' health as they will be exposed to the children," Justman said. "If the children come from different families and do not normally spend time together, then the safety concerns will expand in proportion to the size of the new 'pod.'"
Since each camper will go back home at the end of the day, they risk giving the virus to members of their families, Justman said.
"These potential safety concerns are less about the children's health and more about the health of the children's parents and the health of others (e.g., grandparents) as they will be exposed, through their children, to new children attending the camp," she said.
The record so far is a mixed bag.
New York's Department of Education told NPR last month that it had cared for more than 10,000 children at 170 sites throughout the pandemic, primarily for parents who worked on the front lines in what was once the virus's epicenter in the US. The NYDOE told NPR that it has had no reports of coronavirus clusters or outbreaks, and the YMCA, which has cared for thousands of children across the nation during the pandemic, said it hasn't seen outbreaks either.
But professional camps have struggled. In Missouri, one camp for teenagers shut down after more than 80 campers and staffers tested positive for COVID-19.
Yet the demand remains. A recent American Psychological Association survey found that parents thing their children hare having a hard time coping with the pandemic — kids haven't been going to school in person, and haven't been able to socialize with friends as they would normally.
The survey found that 77% of parents are concerned the pandemic has left a long-term impact on their kids, and 60% "have no idea how they are going to keep their child occupied all summer."
One professional camp director says he's concerned about safety protocols at backyard camps
Mark Transport, the president of the Long Island Camps and Private Schools Association as well as the owner of Crestwood Country Day Camp in Melville, New York, is concerned that the safety measures backyard camp organizers are putting in place aren't enough.
He said professional camps go through an "intense amount of scrutiny" and get training on health department protocols and getting licensed and registered.
"I don't think the people who are in these camps understand what kind of liability they have," he told Insider. "If you're running one of these backyard camps, I don't really think that they're doing the health screening, nor do I think they're going to be doing the incredible protocols that registered and licensed camps are doing, in terms of disinfection."
Stephen Simpson/Getty Images
In a statement to Insider, Erin Silk, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health told Insider that all camps need to be registered with the agency to be in operation. She also said New Yorkers must follow social distancing and avoid large gatherings as part of a statewide executive order.
Justman said that enforcing social distancing could be a challenge at camps especially because different households may have different norms for how they do it. She said organizers should keep groups small and evaluate each child for symptoms.
"Consider who is in your own family and social network and think about how best to protect anyone in your network who is at risk for more severe COVID-19," she said. "This applies to the camp organizers/counselors as well as the parents of the campers."
The backyard camps have already started — and organizers say they've been successful so far
Lewitas told Insider that her backyard camps have already begun, and so far they've been successful. They've had two weeks of camp sessions, and the kids are "excited to get out of the house," Lewitas said.
"It's really important to bring this camp spirit and energy," she told Insider.
Transport told Insider that his day camps on Long Island have been successful too — he's hired a full staff and they've increased health protocols to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
He issued a camp safety plan online for Crestwood, in which campers and staffers are tested for COVID-19, social distancing has been increased, and adequate PPE materials are on hand.
"A word of the wise to people running these pop-up backyard camps… if everything runs smoothly, God bless them... but that doesn't always happen, especially with kids who are unpredictable," he said.
Read the original article on Insider