Cozy Campfires. Capture the Flag. Coronavirus Tests? - Press "Enter" to skip to content

Cozy Campfires. Capture the Flag. Coronavirus Tests?

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“Ten for two” is an unofficial rallying cry for many lovers of sleepaway summer camps. In three words it reveals an unspoken bargain agreed upon for generations by many American children.

They slog through the adult-imposed rules, hypocrisies and indignities foisted on them during the 10 months each year when they’re home with parents and in school with teachers in order to reap the sweet reward: two independent, friendship-filled, technology-free, teenager-supervised, not completely hygienic, wholesome-ish months spent at camp.

Perhaps more than mothers and fathers tell their camper children, “ten for two” is a motivating mantra for parents as well.

But at a time when many parents would already be preparing to sew name tags into shorts and order new flip-flops for growing feet, the coronavirus pandemic has so far left the fate of the summer camp season of 2020 as murky as the waters of an algae-filled lake.

After long weeks of families being locked down at home and with most normal educational, athletic and social activities for children replaced by their zoning out in front of screens for hours, the release provided by camp seems more urgent than ever.

“We are praying for two things right now,” said Marnie Prisand, an actress and mother in Los Angeles whose two daughters, ages 16 and 12, have enthusiastically attended Canyon Creek Summer Camp in Lake Hughes, Calif., for several summers. “We are praying for health and we are praying for camp.”

Max Lasky, 18, is a high school senior (and Ms. Prisand’s nephew) who is missing out on graduation and all the rites associated with leaving one chapter of life behind. He’s hoping — really, really hoping — that he won’t have to give up on his summer plans too. He is supposed to go to Iroquois Springs camp, in Rock Hill, N.Y., where he’s been hired to work as a counselor after having spent seven summers as a camper.

“For me, camp has always been a safe haven to be who you want to be and put all worries aside,” Mr. Lasky said. “With everything that is going on in the world, camp would be a really nice break.”

Camp serves many purposes. It’s child care for parents. It’s relied-on seasonal employment for educators and young adults. It’s an annual economic boost for many rural and mountain communities. There are thousands of camps in the United States, many of them family-owned and operated, that derive nearly their entire annual revenue from the fleeting weeks of hot days and campfire nights.

Camp is one of the few places in life where a young person can have a human-centered experience,” said Tom Rosenberg, the president and chief executive of the American Camp Association, which was founded in 1910 and counts more than 2,500 camps as accredited members. “As parents, we hold our kids back because we bubble-wrap them. At camp, we encourage them to try new things, to really try hard at new things and to learn how to make mistakes. Where do we teach kids to fail forward? That’s camp.”

This year, the metaphorical bubble wrap has been tightened to the point of suffocation, albeit for reasons of public health: playgrounds shut, sports teams and other beloved extracurricular activities paused, schoolwork mediated through the glare of a computer, social life flattened to social media — which was already being blamed, fairly or not, for increased levels of depression and anxiety in children and teenagers (evidence has shown exercise can help).

“We have growing concerns about the ongoing mental health issues, that are increasing steadily, affecting young people today,” said Paul McEntire, chief operating officer of YMCA of the USA, which includes 325 independent camps, attended by more than one million children, about 30 percent of whom attend with the assistance of financial aid. “We’re big believers that being outside always matters. But given quarantine, getting kids outdoors is hypercritical this summer.”

This can be particularly important for children with special medical needs, some of whose families are already facing disappointment.

For the last 25 summers, Camp Barnabas in Purdy, Mo., run by a Christian ministry, has hosted at weeklong sessions children who are in wheelchairs, have Down syndrome, are blind, deaf or have cancer and other chronic illnesses. Last summer, 1,600 campers, 2,400 missionaries and a staff of 150 people sang songs under the stars and spent hot afternoons in the swimming pool.

“The parents we serve never get a break,” said John Tillack, the chief executive of the Barnabas Foundation. “Sending their kids to camp, it’s a necessity. It is the only break they get all year.”

In early April, Mr. Tillack and his staff made the hard call to cancel the upcoming summer’s program. Though most campers live in or nearby the surrounding Barry County, which has reported a total of just five confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the missionaries who work closely with the campers come from 33 states around the country.

Barnabas executives were not sure they could both provide the necessary care for their campers while being responsible members of the broader American community. “Could we get physicians and nurses to come for the summer as they have in the past?” Mr. Tillack said. “Is it fair for us to be pulling medical supplies from communities that are having more cases of Covid than we are in the Midwest?”

Camp Barnabas parents pay tuition of $1,300 per week; the operating cost is $1,500 per child per week, said Krystal Simon, the camp’s chief operations officer. (Last summer, nearly every camper’s family received some financial support to offset costs.)

This summer, parents who request a refund will get one, minus a $55 registration fee. Otherwise, the tuition will be credited toward the 2021 camping season, she said.

Earlier this week, the nonprofit Aloha Foundation, based in Fairlee, Vt., announced it was canceling on-site programming for the 2020 summer at its five camps and would refund paid tuition.

Elsewhere, plans remain in flux. “Most of our directors are still optimistic-slash-hopeful that they will get in at least part, if not all of their summer,” said Mr. McEntire of YMCA. “The lead time gives us a lot of time to worry but also a lot of time to plan.”

Jay Jacobs owns three sleepaway camps in New York and Pennsylvania and he is confident — based on epidemiological trends, the fact that working parents need child care and his Winston Churchill-like optimism — that his campers will get their summer.

In an email to parents he sent this week, Mr. Jacobs wrote, “Camp will be opening on time this summer. Most people are now seeing the likelihood of that outcome.” He said that summer camp is child care and that “child care has been deemed an essential business.” (He added a quote from Churchill: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”)

In an interview, Mr. Jacobs conceded there are some hurdles still to overcome. “Once the government says that camps can open, then we have to make sure camp will be safe for our campers and our staff, which I believe I will be able to do.”

The process will start on the federal level, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is expected in the next few weeks to release guidance to help camps understand, as fully as possible, the issues that they need to contend with while considering the possibilities for opening.

“As part of the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s recently announced ‘Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,’ C.D.C. is developing guidance specific to where people live, work, learn, pray and play in order to help communities ‘reopen’ as safely as possible during this unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic,” a spokeswoman from the health agency said in an emailed statement, adding that the organization, while working with state and local governments, plans shortly “to publish guidance and decision tools related to several sectors and settings, including summer camps.”

They expect some of the guidance to be similar to what the C.D.C. provided in 2009, when H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, threatened the camp season. Then, the agency told camps to “work with state and local public health officials” and to “develop plans for addressing potential disease outbreaks in camp settings.” (Covid-19 symptoms tend to be relatively mild, if present at all, in children.)

Hoping for a “proceed with extreme caution” signal from the C.D.C., the YMCA and the American Camp Association are preparing to help provide resources to camps and parents on how to make decisions.

The two groups have retained Environmental Health & Engineering, a consulting firm in Newton, Mass., to impanel experts, including those in the fields of pediatric medicine, infectious disease management and industrial hygiene, to create educational resources that camp directors can use to help guide their operations and train their staff.

Camp in its particularly American incarnation is a sort of burnt-marshmallow-scented, rugged but safe space for children to develop emotionally: to create deep friendships, to dabble in new hobbies, to build self-reliance and independence.

This year, camp directors are suggesting that they would also create a physical safe zone: where campers remain on the grounds of camp all summer (likely meaning no off-site day or overnight trips) and counselors potentially would spend days off on the camp’s site as well.

Cabins would likely have fewer campers, allowing for spacing of beds. Meal times might be staggered to avoid overcrowding of dining halls. Supplies, like pottery wheels and archery arrows, would be wiped down between campers; personal hygiene would be enforced far more than usual.

Many directors are also expecting that if they can open their camps, they will do so later than usual, possibly in July, in the hope that new cases of Covid-19 continue to diminish in identified hot spots like New York and New Jersey. (This timing could be challenging for camps in the south and southeast, which often open right after Memorial Day and wrap up in early August.) “There are scenarios where an overnight camp is about as safe as any place your child can spend the summer,” Mr. McEntire said.

Almost any plan to open this summer, camp officials say, is contingent on testing each camper and staff member before they arrive, and possibly again before they return home. Operators of private and nonprofit camps say they are in conversations with coronavirus test manufacturers about acquiring the necessary materials.

“We still have eight or nine weeks and we’re confident we can get the tests,” said Mr. Jacobs, whose Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, N.Y., normally accommodates 460 campers and 250 employees each summer.

At Timber Lake, a normal camp season runs from late June to mid-August and costs $13,950, putting it at the high end of the market. Mr. Jacobs said he plans to buy the equipment necessary to rapidly process coronavirus tests. “That’s just the cost of doing business and running a safe camp,” he said.

(Even with all this planning, there remain many unanswered questions, including how campers will get to camp and what happens if a camper arrives at camp and tests positive for the coronavirus.)

The next hurdle will be convincing parents that it’s safe to send their kids away. “The beauty of our business is that we have very close relationships with our families,” said Nick Coffing, a director of Canyon Creek Summer Camp, which Ms. Prisand’s daughters attend.

Phoebe Yager and Steve Schrodel of Lexington, Mass., have been planning to send their older son, Graham, 13, to Camp Sangamon in Pittsford, Vt., for his fourth consecutive summer. Mr. Schrodel, the chief operating officer of a health care start-up, and Dr. Yager, a pediatric intensivist (or, critical care doctor), said that they will be guided by the safety determinations of state and local health officials.

“One thing we know is that this is a disease that is overwhelmingly affecting adults and is largely sparing children,” Dr. Yager said, “though we must balance this with the understanding that children may serve as vectors, placing adult family members and the broader community at risk when campers return home.” (Dr. Yager works in an I.C.U. that is now treating adult Covid-19 patients.)

For so many reasons, they hope that come summertime, scientists and regulators believe it’s safe for camp to open. “I think we are going to go crazy with kids at home without camp if we have continued quarantine and we would mourn the special opportunity for our kids to reinvent themselves and explore and take chances that I think are harder to take at home,” she said.

They’re keeping in touch with Jed Byrom, who with his family owns Camp Sangamon and its sister property, Camp Betsey Cox. (The camps offer sessions lasting between two and eight weeks and tuition costs $1,200 to $1,500 a week, depending how long a camper stays.)

“There is a lot of trust,” said Mr. Byrom. “We are in the business of taking care of people’s kids. People know we will make good decisions” — though he’s hoping for firm guidance from the C.D.C. and public health officials in Vermont.

One thing he is not worried about is whether he will be able to find counselors to work. Most summers, Mr. Byrom hires a staff of about 50 people, with 20 of them coming from Asia and Europe, which he knows this year will be impossible. But he is hearing from former campers and former counselors who no longer have full time jobs or whose plans for the summer have fallen through because of the virus. He said: “They’re calling me and saying, ‘Can I come back to camp?’”


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