Last year at this time, parents around the country who had been accustomed to sending their kids off to summer camp were beginning to realize, with a sinking feeling, that their much-anticipated plans would be sidelined, leaving a whole lot of kids disappointed.
"They would both tell you that camp is best part of their entire year — better than Christmas, vacations, the sports that they play," Abby Chau of New Hampshire tells Yahoo Life of her teenage son and daughter, who have been repeat campers at YMCA Camp Coniston since grade school. But last year, with Coniston, which is located in Grantham, New Hampshire, closed due to the pandemic like most summer camps across the country, including 80 percent of the YMCA's 231 overnight camps, it just wasn't in the cards.
"I think we all suffered many blows last spring… my daughter was in 8th grade and her D.C. trip was canceled, her field trips were canceled — then lacrosse, then the dance, one thing after another, canceled. And camp being canceled just frosted that terrible cake," Chau recalls. "I don't want to be overly dramatic, because people have suffered so much in the last year, and we're not at the top of that list. But when you're younger, that perspective is hard to come by."
Recalls Coniston CEO John Tilley, "Last year, we were feeling what every person in the country was feeling: anxious and afraid, and sad for what we had lost. We didn’t know where we were going."
Which is why this year's news that most sleep-away camps and day camps will indeed be open, with safety protocols in place, is bringing such relief and happiness, including to Chau's kids, who are "overjoyed," she says.
"The difference is amazing," Tilley tells Yahoo Life, "because we can see the light at the end of the tunnel — and last year we were just going into the tunnel."
Related video: How to manage kids' anxiety when returning to summer camp
The summer of 2020 left most camps closed, some operating at lower capacity, and plenty of families feeling bereft. "We got tremendous feedback on the ones we did operate, but the impact on mental health and overall wellbeing for kids was significantly impacted without camp, especially after they didn't have school in normal ways," Paul McEntire, COO of YMCA of the USA (Y-USA), tells Yahoo Life. There are 231 Y overnight camps nationwide (as well as more than 10,000 day camps), at which 30 percent of campers attend with some sort of financial aid. And this year, the Y camps and most privately operated ones are back.
"This is a summer of healing for our kids," Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the national nonprofit camp accreditor American Camp Association, tells Yahoo Life, noting that studies have found kids to be more "anxious, depressed, isolated and disconnected" due to COVID. "We've all been robbed by this pandemic, and so many people have passed. But I believe kids have really been robbed most of all. Not nearly enough has been said about their social and emotional losses." It's why this summer, he believes, is a "critical" time for regaining and relearning.
"When you're growing up, you form your own identity through the reflection of your peers… you're testing out who you want to be, starting to form your own attitudes," says Rosenberg, who was a camp director for 27 years before leading the ACA. "Camp is a place where kids learn those things… especially since parents are now bubble-wrapping kids more than ever before… and most were already emotionally vulnerable, pre-COVID."
McEntire agrees that the social skills gained at camp are needed now more than ever. "Being outdoors, with friends, is always great for their development, their self-confidence, their learning — and now magnify that because they've not had that in significant ways in the last year and a half," he says. "The advantages are compounded because they've missed it."
Worn-out adults, of course, are benefiting, too. "We're hearing it's equally important for parents, who have had really hard load — especially those who have been managing home-based education and remote work along with health issues," he says. "We laugh and say that, in a healthy way, parents are looking forward to it as much as their kids, so they can focus on themselves."
Then, of course, there’s the bottom line: Rosenberg explains that a typical summer would see over 26 million children and youth served in over 15,000 camps, with typically around 1.2 million seasonal staffers — bringing a gross revenue of almost $21 billion for those camps. Last year, the field lost over $16 billion in direct revenue, while seasonal employees shouldered over $4.4 billion in lost wages.
So, what's changed this year, and how will camp look?
For starters, McEntire says, "We just understand the virus better." Part of that understanding comes from the ACA studying the camps that opened under strict guidelines last year, and finding "very little transmission," as well as seeing that in three places that did have significant transmission, the study "identified that they were not following guidelines." Another study, by the Duke University Medical School, he adds, looked at day camps and identified nearly 20 cases of COVID "but only one that was maybe contracted at camp, while there was no spread from any cases brought in."
Safety measures are further detailed in a newly updated version of the Field Guide for Camps, originally released last year by the ACA and Y-USA working with consultant environmental health experts in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which just recently released long-awaited camp guidelines.
Some basics to be followed, says McEntire, will include parents not being able to help kids unpack in their cabins, limiting exposures on the grounds, singing outside only, aiming to serve meals outside when possible, rearranging bunk beds so that kids' heads aren’t near each other, more cabin ventilation and the formation of a pod or "family system" that puts 14 kids with three adults for all activities.
"That's the best way to give staff breaks and to have relaxed distancing, plus less mask-wearing," McEntire notes. "And it's what really helped us last year — if a case got in, it never got transmitted pod to pod." Although he's not aware of any camps requiring vaccines, he's heard from many who report that "the overwhelming majority of their staff" has either gotten vaccinated or intends to do so before the start of camp, and "that will be huge." Some might require negative COVID test results from one to three days before arrival, with another test at day three to five, for which a negative result "would be a strong indicator that you haven't brought [COVID] in," he says.
Adds Tilley, speaking for Coniston, "It's too soon to require vaccinations for kids… I think the most we can do with children is strongly encourage that they get a vaccine. One of the benefits… is the science is clear that if someone else has it, the child with the vaccine will not have to go home."
Others lessons learned that will be applied to this summer: The mental health of campers needs to be prioritized, and so many camps will be adding more counselors or social workers to their staffs, or working closely with supportive nonprofits. Also, virtual camp was a benefit to some kids, especially those with dealing with serious illnesses, says Rosenberg. "That made it more accessible, to the point where even kids in the hospital were able to take part," he says, which is why the option will stick around in many cases.
Finally, YMCA camps are making a big push to get children into camp no matter what their family's financial situation — and McEntire is encouraging those who can afford to sponsor a child to consider doing so. "One mom came in a registered her kids and handed over a $10,000 check and said 'please send another kid,'" he says. "Not everyone can do that, but even $50 or $100 would help."
But perhaps the biggest learnings — or confirmations — have been around the social-emotional importance of summer camp. "All I have seen this year is kids being harnessed by technology… while their human skills have been stunted, perhaps," says Rosenberg. "Now, as we head into the summer and the CDC guidance is shifting, there are opportunities to be in summer camp programs where they can start to reengage themselves in the person skills that they haven’t used in a while."
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