Summer Camp 2020: How Likely Is It to Happen?

Hello mother, hello father, I am here at…Camp Zoom? Wet, hot, socially distant summer? The burning questions on the minds of parents after months spent in lockdown (in many cases, watching their tiny children become alarmingly adept at social media) are: Will summer camp happen? And if it does, will it be safe enough to send our kids?

The latest news out of the New York area has brought safety concerns to the forefront, as a small number of children likely to have contracted Covid-19 have suffered life-threatening complications.

Still, the physicians we spoke with have stressed that these tragic outcomes are exceedingly rare. As one put it, “More kids die from bee stings every year than are hospitalized with this.” Indeed, the vast majority of children who contract the Coronavirus are less susceptible to serious illness than adults. And yet, for day campers in particular, there is “the community integration piece” to consider, says pediatrician Dr. Sara Kopple of Westmed Medical Group in New Rochelle, New York—site of the state’s earliest virus epicenter.

So, what’s the likelihood of summer camp 2020 actually happening? Here’s the rundown.

Day Camp Vs. Sleepaway Camp

The fact is, day camps present logistical and public health challenges that sleepaway camps may be able to work around. “I think day camp and sleepaway camp are very different situations,” explains Dr. Kopple, who is also a mother of two school-age kids. “Day camp still seems like a reach because the kids are at camp, they’re all around each other, and then they’re coming back and having dinner with Grandma or spending the weekend with their family. Even though at sleepaway camp, they’re sharing all their meals and sharing their environment, they are isolated [from the community at large]. They are more like a ‘quarantined’ population if they're not going on trips. Most of these counselors are young; they’re high school and college kids. So, it’s a lower-risk population in a little bubble. Day campers are fully part of their community, whereas sleepaway camp is a totally isolated pocket, if you keep the kids contained to that campus.” Some sleepaway camp directors are even confident they can get enough Coronavirus test kits to ensure every staffer and camper is virus-free before they walk through the gates.

Despite their increased challenges, many optimistic day camp directors are still moving forward with plans to open, and the state of Connecticut recently announced that camps would be allowed to operate, provided they adhere to specific safety guidelines. Safeguards being considered include: requiring campers to wear cloth masks, delayed opening dates, serving all meals outdoors, reducing the sizes of groups and prohibiting inter-group mingling via all-camp assemblies, training staff to oversee hand-washing, increasing the numbers of healthcare staff on site, stepping up the sanitizing of common areas, asking Covid-symptom-specific questions on health screening registration forms and doing daily temperature checks. Other day camps are moving camp off site, soliciting parents’ backyards, where—for a reduced fee—they will convene campers in small groups and send the counselors to them. Many, like Camp Carr, a YMCA day camp in Annandale, New Jersey, and Next Level Day Camps, which operates boys and girls camps in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, are offering lower required deposit rates with guaranteed full refunds if camps are unable to operate this summer.

As reassuring as all that sounds, mounting evidence would seem to caution parents and campers against getting their hopes up. The Union for Reform Judaism, which oversees 15 camps, including well-known, historic sleepaway camps Crane Lake and Camp Eisner, both in Massachusetts, made the call to cancel camp on April 30. 10,000 children now must make new summer plans. In North Carolina, as the majority of museum day camps and local Parks and Rec departments cancel summer programming, parents face yet another impossible scramble: “It's fair to say that this summer will present unprecedented child care issues for families across the region,” writes Raleigh-Durham journalist Sarah Lindenfeld Hall, “especially if employers require employees to return to work even if they have nobody to care for their kids.”

A Local Decision

So what does all of this mean for you and your campers?

As with many complex issues related to the pandemic, much depends on where you live, the location of your children’s camps (and whether/how they would need to travel there), the recommendations of your local Board of Health, State mandates, and guidance from the CDC.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised to make a state-wide determination regarding summer camps by the end of May. But within that overarching policy, he told reporters, “Summer camp decisions will follow regional decisions.” As part of his four-phase plan to reopen New York state, outlined in his May 4 newsletter, he categorized “education”—and one might assume camp falls under this category?—as being the last classification of public gatherings to be considered for re-opening. “If you open [the state back up] too quickly you can immediately have a backlash, as other countries have seen,” he wrote. “We must be smart.” In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine issued this clarifying tweet on April 27: “I wish we could make a decision on camps right now, but we’re not ready at this point to make that decision. Those who run camps should start thinking about how they would do social distancing at camp. We have to take this one week at a time.”

We reached out to the American Camp Association, which offers guidance on health and safety protocols to camp owners and directors, to try to get a sense of which way the wind is blowing. “Unfortunately, our responses to many of these questions would be purely speculative until we receive further guidance from the CDC and public health authorities,” a spokesperson wrote back. They were expecting those national guidelines to be issued on May 1. The date came and went with no further information made available.

One camp director interviewed by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in upstate New York, where many exclusive sleepaway camps are located, named June 1 as his “go or no-go” decision-making deadline. Consider our calendars marked.

A Judgment Call

Ultimately, a parent’s comfort level with camp may hinge on her faith in the new—and still evolving—social distancing and hygiene protocols put into practice by individual camps for the first time ever. Are you willing to make your children guinea pigs in a public health experiment? On the other hand, is depriving them of even more social-emotional growth and physical activity—with pools and beaches likely closed for the duration of the summer, while you work from home without childcare—a scenario you can manage? “Parents need to know that they are putting their kids at risk by sending them to any camp,” says Dr. Kopple. “As many safety protocols as there may be in place, you’re still weighing the risk vs. benefit and deciding what’s most important. I think any parent who is going to send their kid to sleepaway camp needs to know that there is a complete possibility their kid could acquire this infection at camp. But as a mother, until more information is available, I'm just as worried about my daughter falling off a horse or breaking an arm or getting a tick bite that then leads to Lyme Disease, and any of the other regular childhood injuries and illnesses that occur at camp."

RELATED: The Top 4 Things to Look for in a Summer Camp