This year Camp Augusta, an overnight camp in Nevada City, Calif., Has more than 500 campers on its waiting list – the longest list in two decades. Parents who a few months ago wondered how often the equipment will be sanitized now are more interested in how Augusta plans to make camp as normal as possible, principal Randy Grayson said.
And the campers made it clear what they were hoping for: a worry-free summer regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
“Almost all of them mention the impact of Covid on their lives and how they look forward to the opposite,” Grayson said. “They mention how excited they are for the summer and to be with their friends, having fun outdoors and effectively, Covid not existing in their life.”
To do this, Camp Augusta, which did not operate last summer due to state restrictions, is requiring all counselors to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Campers will be tested for Covid-19 before their arrival, upon arrival and at the start of their stay. Parents will not be allowed to come for a day of visitation.
Similar measures are being put in place in camps across the country, which find that, as the pandemic approaches its second summer, there is strong interest in potential families’ interest, a dramatic change from last year. .
Emboldened by lessons learned from the handful of camps that operated last summer and schools that have opened in person over the past year, camp directors say they are able to come up with specific plans to ensure the safety of campers – at a time when they are locked up. children and their exhausted parents are more eager than ever to change their routine.
Many parents were too nervous to send their children to camp last year and some states have banned the opening of camps, meaning only about 18% of night camps operational in 2020, according to the American Camp Association. . About 60 percent of the day camps were open.
But for this summer, camp directors from Connecticut to California told NBC News that not only are they open, but they also have booming waitlists.
At Camp Augusta, the waiting list is more than double what it has ever been in 19 years at Grayson as a principal there. He believes that as parents learned more about the rarity of outdoor transmission of Covid-19, they flocked to enroll their children in camp. A year of distance learning has also likely pushed parents – and children – to their breaking points, he said.
“Kids need this experience,” Grayson said. “Their life is school. Yes, they need reading, writing, arithmetic and all that good stuff, but the social element is childhood wonder and what people remember.
Each year, campers write letters to Camp Augusta staff to share what they’re most excited to do once summer arrives, Grayson said. The effect of the pandemic plays a disproportionate role in this year’s letters.
“It’s so similar to what they say: I can kiss my friend, play with them, see their eyes,” he said. “Because you can’t really see the nuances in someone’s eyes through a screen.”
The security measures that will be in place
Last summer offers successes as well as inspiring stories.
In an overnight camp in Georgia that did not require campers to wear masks, 260 children and staff were infected with the coronavirus.
Others were able to operate safely. North Star Camp for Boys, an overnight camp in Hayward, Wisconsin, hosted campers for seven weeks without a single case of coronavirus.
“You do whatever you can to keep Covid out, and you plan like he’s coming anyway.
“You’re doing whatever you can to keep Covid out, and you’re planning as if it’s going anyway,” said Andy Shlensky, director of North Star and owner and managing partner of The Road Less Traveled, a company community services and adventure travel for teens. .
His camp made a number of changes, such as moving meals from the indoor dining room to outdoor picnic tables; The same is true with its arts and crafts shop, one of the only other parts of the camp besides the huts previously inside.
Chicago emergency doctor Dr Julie Rothschild sent her two sons to North Star for years and said they had as much fun as ever last year.
“They had the privilege of having an almost normal summer,” she says.
There is a plethora of written safety guidelines for state and local camps, as well as detailed federal safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC’s camp guidelines, released in April, encourage outdoor activities, wearing masks and spacing campers whenever possible, mitigation measures that have proven successful last year.
“This year we also have vaccines. It’s another layer of protection. And the tests are more widely available in many situations, ”said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, which has its own field guide created jointly with the YMCA of the United States for the safe operation of camps.
Campers should be kept in cohorts, or small groups, with 3 feet between children, according to the CDC, unless they are eating, drinking or otherwise unmasked, in which case there should be 6 feet between them. Overnight camps should ask campers to self-quarantine for two weeks prior to arrival. The guide also recommends strongly encouraging all counselors and staff to get immunized.
Dr. Sara Bode, one of the authors of the American Academy of Pediatrics camp advice and the new president of the Council on School Health, suggested that parents ask the camps questions about their safety protocols in advance. , including how they plan to react if someone displays potential symptoms of Covid-19.
And while campers under the age of 12 likely won’t have the opportunity to be vaccinated in time for the summer, Bode said with other strategies in place, that shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
Day and night camps have their own security risks and benefits, she added.
“I don’t think one is safer than the other,” she said. For overnight camps, campers are more likely to have close contact with their cabin mates, but with testing and quarantine before camp begins, they can help reduce the risk of Covid-19 entering. in the camp.
“Lots of camps are going to maximize the time outdoors, thankfully.”
In day camps, during this time, the proximity to other campers is probably less prolonged, Bode said, but unlike the bubble that is created during the night, campers in the day camp can mingle with others. people outside the camp.
“I think you can do it safely, just like we did at school,” she said. “And a lot of the camps are going to maximize the time outdoors, thankfully.”
The challenges facing the camps
Preparing for the 2021 summer season has not been without challenges.
Many camps have had to increase their tuition fees to account for the additional costs caused by new security protocols and to make up for a lost summer last year. At Geneva Glen Camp, an overnight camp for children ages 6 to 16 in Indian Hills, Colo., The price has gone up about 8% this year, said Geneva Glen manager Casey Klein.
“I estimate we’ll spend $ 35,000 to $ 40,000 on the extra stuff. For a nonprofit, that’s a lot of money, ”said Klein, who is also president of the Colorado Camps Network.
Geneva Glen is nonetheless determined to be fair, Klein said. Each year, the camp awards around 80 scholarships to families who otherwise could not afford to send their children, and this year is no exception.
Paediatricians are encouraging efforts to give all children the opportunity to attend camp, not just those who can afford to enroll. Some places, like New York City, offer free summer programs for Kindergarten to Grade 8; in Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont has proposed up to $ 11 million in funds to expand access to summer enrichment activities.
Finding counselors has also proved difficult for some camps. Many rely on the J-1 summer visa program which allows international students to come to the United States as camp counselors, and travel bans and embassy backlogs have been a problem.
Others, like the Winding Trails summer day camp in Farmington, Connecticut, have found that potential counselors are currently solidifying their plans for the summer, from college internships to family vacations, Keith Garbart said. , director of the Winding Trails camp. At Camp Augusta, the night camp in California, requiring vaccinations among counselors, some candidates have been turned off, Director Grayson said. (Many other camps encourage, but do not require, that counselors be immunized.)
But making camp fun while adhering to Covid-19 protocols is not one of the hurdles that worry camp directors. Winding Trails was in operation last summer and found unexpected social benefits in incorporating new safety guidelines.
“I think it was one of our best summers ever, because the campers were able to connect with smaller groups and their counselors,” Garbart said. “They were their own little family unit.”
This type of connection is what Misty Gregg, internal auditor in Fremont, Calif., Hopes for her children. Her son and daughter did not go last summer, and this year they will be going to overnight camps. Both have been studying remotely since March 2020, and her son, Torin, 12, has been locked in his room most of the time, between virtual lessons and playing Minecraft.
“I just want him to want to get out more,” she said. “Camp has a no-electronics policy. I hope he comes home and realizes that “I don’t have to do this every day. I can go out and play. ”
Grayson hopes her camp will provide the children with a mental break from the pandemic, as well as a safe place to discuss how she has affected them.
“There’s nothing in childhood that hasn’t been touched by this,” he said. “There is no way Covid is not something they want to deal with.”