In a similar fashion to many of the country’s retail stores and restaurants, summer camps have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many were put out of business after a mostly inactive 2020.
In 2021, many camps are returning with a brand new look and approach that may give a glimpse into the future of summer camps in the post-pandemic era.
Choosing cabin mates, making arts and crafts and playing Capture the Flag are all expected to return in 2021, as many summer camps are getting resourceful and building confidence in a safe summer camp experience.
“It’s not a matter of privilege, it’s a matter of necessity for this summer,” Tom Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg runs the American Camp Assocation, which represents nearly every day and overnight camp in the United States.
The past year Rosenberg, along with the 26 million children who would typically go to a camp, were stuck at home, sheltering during the pandemic.
During the summer of 2020, 40 percent of day camps and 82 percent of overnight camps never opened. Those that survived the economic hardship are looking to return to a new beginning.
“You probably didn’t realize that your kids spending time in the sunshine with their BFF’s actually translates to better grades,” Rosenberg said.
He calls the upcoming summer “The Summer of Healing.”
“Kids after having been home and isolated and traumatized for over a year. They are not used to being around each other, let alone interacting with each other,” Rosenberg said.
The ACA has become creative with their approach, due to no vaccines being approved for children yet in the United States. The organization encourages thinking of the fight against the virus like a block of Swiss cheese.
They advise campers and staff wear masks, remain in smaller groups and continue with social distancing – nothing too different from what many are already used to. It’s an approach that’s designed to offer multiple layers of protection at once.
“When you stack those layers of Swiss cheese on top of each other, you block and mitigate the transmission of the virus,” Rosenberg said.
Last summer, Andy Shlensky, the owner and director of North Star Camp for Boys in Wisconsin ran a 7-week overnight camp this way and was able to avoid a single outbreak.
This summer, he is offering two sessions and welcoming over 300 kids to Hayward, Wisconsin, about a seven-hour drive from Chicago.
“Residential camps are in a unique position to create a true bubble. Nobody in or out,” Shlensky said.
Shlensky encouraged those attending the camp to think of those in their initial camp cohort as their new family.
When it comes to lodging, that family consists of cabins with 8-10 kids to start. They eat, sleep and play in the same cohort. As time passes, and if the virus remains at bay, those “families” can grow in size and interact with one another.
“Our kids are still going to compete at their dinner tables to see who can pound on their tables and chant the loudest,” Shlensky said. “Those dinner tables are just going to be outside and spaced six feet apart as opposed to inside in a packed dining hall.”
He said the camp mentality should be getting kids away from digital devices, out of their homes and back to the basics.
“The basics are still what the kids need. They need to be with their friends, need to be outside, social interaction, role models, they need engagement and they need activities,” Shlensky said.
The ACA said campers should prepare for testing for before arrival, during arrival and during the session for overnight camps.
Prescreening for symptoms, staggered arrivals and departures, along with social contracts signed by families may be part of the program this summer. Masks will serve as the daily defense on sight.
“At camp, kids are going to have masks on their person at all times, but they are not going to need to have masks on their face all the time,” Shlensky said.
Shlensky said the small sacrifices the pandemic forces are worth the great gains of being a kid at camp.
Even congress agrees the social and emotional wellness of children is on the line. A COVID-19 relief bill recently included over $1 billion in federal funds dedicated to summer enrichment programs, including camps of all kinds.
“We’re teaching kids how to practice being people in a community. How to relate to one another, how to give more than they receive,” Rosenberg said.
Within the next several days, the CDC is expected to weigh in with their guidelines for summer camps in 2021. The agency will likely echo much of what the ACA has already set forth.
Key Findings from a public health survey can be found here.