Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘These kids have been isolated socially and educationally’: Will kids across America have to cancel camp this summer?

This summer, camps could be scrapping color wars, ditching field trips and reducing the number of kids sleeping in each bunk.

That is, if camp is even happening this summer.

The coronavirus outbreak has already shuttered this summer’s Olympics, various concerts, Fourth of July events and New York City’s public pools. Many Americans are calling off their vacation plans too. Almost half (48%) of consumers say they’re cancelling their summer plans, according to a 1,201-person survey.

So will day camps and sleep-away camps join the growing list of cancellations?

That’s something millions of cooped-up kids and parents want to know — not to mention the members of a camping industry that’s worth approximately $18 billion, according to the American Camp Association, a trade group for the nation’s camps.

“Camp, right now, is truly very much up in the air,” said Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, a professional organization for more than 140 camps in the state.


Some modifications could include fewer kids per bunk and requirements that specialists wipe down and sanitize equipment between periods.

As the coronavirus pandemic shuts down businesses across the country and infectious-diseases experts weigh the likelihood of a second wave in the fall, parents and camp counselors are waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to offer guidance on when and how it will be safe to return to group activities like camp, where kids and adult staff are often in close quarters.

The federal public-health agency’s guidance is important because many state and local health authorities, which issue camps’ operating licenses, take their cues from what the CDC says, Hall explained.

In the meantime, many Maine camps are planning for three scenarios, Hall said. The first is a normal summer, the second is a shortened season and the third is closing down for the 2020 summer.

Some camps are weighing how they can incorporate social-distancing tactics into the experience, he said. Other possibilities are nixing inter-camp competitions, calling off field trips and avoiding all-camp gatherings. It could also mean fewer kids in bunks and fewer people in the dining hall at any one time, Hall said.

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“Some camps are more than prepared to do this, and other camps where it would be very difficult,” Hall said, citing maintenance costs and facilities.

Joey and Lori Waldman, the owners and directors of Camp Blue Ridge, a sleep away camp in Clayton, Ga., are also drawing up contingency plans and grappling with the same questions of what social distance camping looks like.

Some modifications this year could include fewer kids per bunk and requirements that specialists wipe down and sanitize equipment between periods, Joey Waldman said. Field trips would be off the table and staff would have to stay on-site, even when they are off duty, he added. The camp has 250 acres, so that’s a lot of space for campers and staff to spread out, he noted.


‘If we don’t feel it’s safe, we have to commit to what we feel is right.’


— Joey Waldman, co-owner and director of Camp Blue Ridge

Waldman’s state is in the center of the reopening-the-economy debate, as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp tries to get the state’s economy back up running soon. He is planning on creating hand-washing stations, replete with hand sanitizer and, instead of meals being buffet style, one staffer would bring over a camp group’s food.

Kemp is allowing gyms, hair salons and bowling alleys to get back to business on Friday, so long as they follow certain requirements. Movie theaters can start selling tickets and restaurants can go to limited dining as of Monday under the timetable. Some critics, however, say that’s too soon and will lead to a rise in more COVID-19 infections and fatalities.

For now, Waldman’s getting ready to open up, but prepared to close if he thinks it’s ultimately the best idea. “If we don’t feel it’s safe, we have to commit to what we feel is right,” he said. If the camp, a family business for five decades, closed for the summer, Waldman said it would be tough but, “we would make due.”

‘An endless list of things’

It’s been a tough spring for many students. There are 50.8 million public-school students and another 5.8 million private-school students, according to the Department of Education.

Almost 40 states have closed their physical schools to slow the spread of COVID-19 and that’s affected 40.7 million public students, according to Education Week, a media outlet focused on education matters. The camping industry serves approximately 20 million kids, according to the American Camp Association, a non-profit professional association offering camp accreditation.


Many camps have big financial pressure to make this season happen.


— Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, a professional organization for more than 140 camps in the state.

“These kids have been isolated socially and educationally,” Hall said. “Now, more than previous years” camp could be a valuable bridge between “where we are now and where their lives are normally in the fall.”

Furthermore, many camps have big financial pressure to make this season happen, Hall noted. “If camps can’t open, there will be Maine camps that cannot survive unless there really good financial support from the state and federal government.” Maine camps generate $220 million annually in direct and indirect support for the state’s economy, between employment, construction, restaurants and insurance fees, he noted.

Yet camps everywhere have to balance all those concerns with ensuring a place that’s safe for kids and staff, Hall emphasized.

There are all sorts of open questions now, Hall said, from the big picture to details like how often to wipe down bathrooms and water fountains. “It’s an endless list of things that need be considered.”

That list could end up costing camps more money if they have to build more bunks and hire more staff to supervise smaller groups. So will more camp expenses equal bigger costs for families?

“The camps I talked to are saying if there are additional expenses, they are not going to increase tuitions,” said Hall. Tuitions for the camps in Hall’s group range from $200 a week to $15,000 for the summer. Camps would give pro-rated refunds for shortened sessions, he said.

“The big unknown” is what testing requirements will be, and whether camps will have to foot the bill, Hall noted.

Five weeks at Camp Blue Ridge costs $5,900 and seven weeks cost $7,900. If the camp had to shorten its season, Waldman said he would either reimburse tuition on a pro-rated basis, or apply the remainder to next season. If he had to pay for more supplies and staff to meet new guidelines this summer, Waldman said he would not pass that price onto parents.


Camps are working on their contingency plans as they wait for more information from the CDC and other public-health authorities.

The CDC is still working on 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 said.

Camps are working on their contingency plans as they wait for more information from the CDC and other public-health authorities, the American Camp Association said in a statement. “We expect to have more information to share by early May regarding the future status of camp operations,” it said.

Some camps aren’t waiting on public health officials.

Stuart Jones, the owner and director of Outpost Summer Camps, a San Diego, Calif. day camp, announced earlier this month his camp would be skipping the 2020 season.

Families could get their money back, donate the money to a fund for campers who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend or apply the money to the 2021 season. One-third chose to either donate it to the fund or apply the deposit to next summer, he said.


‘We feel it’s more responsible for our camp, the way we run our camp, to close for the season.’


— Stuart Jones, president of Outpost Summer Camps in San Diego, Calif.

“We feel it’s more responsible for our camp, the way we run our camp, to close for the season,” he told MarketWatch. The camp, which usually serves 1,500 kids, was “the opposite of social distancing,” Outpost Summer Camps said on its website.

Tommy Feldman, the founder and director of the 135-acre Camp Granite Lake near Boulder, Colo., announced the camp’s 2020 closure earlier this week.

He obtained a small business loan through the $2 trillion stimulus bill, and after that, he’ll skip his salary for a year and his staff will take a one-third pay cut. But the decision was “straightforward” considering the risk, Feldman said.

“I think the families that really want us to run are going to forgive us for cancelling. But the families that don’t want us to run would never forgive us,” he added.

Back in Georgia, Waldman said he understands the decisions other camps are making. “We’re not at that phase. We want to plot the course,” he said.

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