With a very unusual U.S. school year coming to an end, children who have been trapped at home for the past three months (and the parents who have been beside them) are looking to summer camps to give the kids a place other than home to go. But alongside vacations and public pool memberships, parents are wondering whether summer camp will (or should) happen in an era of social distancing.
Camp Fire Wilani Executive Director Elissa Kobrin told NBC News that that that answer is a resounding yes. Despite the fact that campers are occasionally reminded to spread out more (and hand-sanitizer breaks have become standard) the elementary- and middle-school kids who come to the day camp seem basically unfazed.
“They are absolutely rolling with it,” Kobrin said. “I think they’re just really excited to see other kids.”
That’s exactly what camp directors want to hear as they consider the future of the $18 billion U.S. summer camp industry, which serves 20 million children on average each year. Millions of kids attend one of 14,000 camps, although how many of them will open this summer remains uncertain, according to the American Camp Association.
Jim and Denice Dunn, co-executive directors of a girl’s sleepaway camp called Camp Merrie-Woode, have decided to sit out the summer for the first time in its 101 years of operation.
"[The camp] made it through polio, it made it through the world wars," Denice Dunn told NBC. “We’re wrestling with the five stages of grief. It’s not the loss of a loved one, but it’s the loss of a summer.”
But given the camp’s traditions of closely gathered groups for activities like sports and singing – and the possibility that camp staff could miss a mild case of COVID-19 – the couple decided that staying closed is the safest option.
Other camps are barred from opening by state rules. Day camps have gotten the green light to open in many states – even in hard-hit New York – but sleepaway camps have not. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has publicly said that reopening sleepaway camps remains under consideration, but that no official word will come before next week.
Camps that do open are typically required to follow CDC protocols for public safety, as well as state and local and guidelines and an extensive guide jointly created by the American Camp Association and the YMCA.
Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, said the closures and rule changes mean the industry will almost certainly see losses this summer measured in billions of dollars. Camps will be forced to lower the number of campers they can take in and restructure days to make sure kids are eating in shifts, temperatures are taken and sanitization interludes become as familiar as sing-alongs and s’mores.
But Rosenberg said campers won’t wear masks full time, instead only donning them when appropriate. And parents, who will likely represent the largest contamination threat, will have to stay in their cars at both pick-up and drop-off each day.
Dr. David Kimberlin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a pediatric infectious disease physician, said the camp experience will be very different from previous years. “It’s going to be focused on density reduction. It's going to be focused on social distancing. It’s going to be focused on masking,” Kimberlin said. “Many camps, very understandably, are saying, ‘Look, that’s not what we want to provide, and we’re going to sit this one out and be ready for 2021.’”
And then there’s the question of whether parents will actually be comfortable sending their children to camp each day absent a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19. Melissa Libert of Bloomington, Illinois said she felt relieved when her son’s day camp announced it would not open this summer, saving her a difficult choice of whether to send him.
But Libert did note that managing childcare without summer camp will be challenging. “His summer camp has amazing staff and all sorts of adventures all summer, and now we have nothing,” she said.
To help parents like Libert fill in the gaps left by summer camp shutdowns, some camps are going virtual, with online summer camps popping up all over the web. What they offer remains a work in progress, since the practice is so new and parents are still evaluating their kids’ potential summer adventures.
“The benefits of a virtual summer camp might be that a child can extend their learning in that year," said Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at the American Council on Education. "They can learn how to socialize in a different environment and to advocate in a different way for themselves. But speaking as a parent, a structureless summer isn't so bad."
But according to many parents, a structureless summer isn't that great, either. Kids might wind up climbing the walls and looking for things to do, or parents could find themselves trying to work from home while simultaneously filling their children’s time.
So, the $18 billion summer camp industry might just find a way to hold on this year in a somewhat reduced form, as day-to-day American life continues to navigate the various potholes on the road to an economic and social recovery.