No one doubts all of the benefits kids get from attending summer camp, whether a local day camp or a fun overnight camp, particularly their connection with nature.
But the coronavirus pandemic left many families — and camps for that matter — scrambling last summer about what to do about a lost summer as many summer camps either went virtual or weren’t held at all. Some overnight camps converted to day camps and some day camps continued on, all with COVID-19 precautions in place, to keep a little bit of normalcy intact.
So, what does Summer 2021 look like for families desperate for a return to more of a normal summer?
It’s looking hopeful.
Camps are “cautiously planning to open” with a Plan B, or C or D, says Dottie Myers-Hill, camp director of the Van Buren Youth Camp in Bloomingdale. She just attended the national American Camp Association conference where she says she heard most camps are planning to open this year and are waiting for their state’s guidance.
Safety of campers and the camp staff remains the most important focus. She says a safe summer camp experience can be done successfully, with all of the fun and all of the activities outside. Last summer, 486 overnight camps opened, with 74 reporting a COVID case, she says the ACA told her.
Those that aren’t sure about opening are planning virtual experiences with plans to convert to in-person as allowed, she says.
Some of the summer camp precautions include masking, extra sanitation and creating cohorts among small groups as well as changing programs to keep social distance but also creating a camp feel so kids can still play together.
For herself, she was asked by her nonprofit camp board to be prepared to recommend backup plans: Opening traditionally with COVID precautions in place, opening at half capacity, opening for family camping and rentals only, or offering a day camp as they did last summer. They are planning to open with smaller numbers and if things are better, and if Michigan does not put any limits on overnight camps, she believes they will be able to invite more campers.
Tips for parents
- Check out the camps you are interested in and make sure they are being transparent about what their plans are and how they are going to keep the kids safe. Some are still developing the COVID plan but they should be able to share their plan from last year and how they might revamp it for this year, she says. Ask how any precautions being taken can change the programming, will it change the class offerings and any of the activities that kids normally look forward to, she says.
- Make sure to check refund policies and ask about protocols if there is an exposure.
- Talk to your kids about what camp is going to be like this summer. “I think it’s super important for kids to not be surprised that things will be very different. It’s been a weird year for everyone and I think they look forward to the camp experience,” she says. She also suggests talking to kids about the transition from being surrounded by devices all of the time to life with no devices at camp. She suspects that might be a difficult adjustment for some, as will be more separation anxiety after spending so much time with parents the past year. Her camp, for instance, plans to bring in mental health professionals weekly to check on kids and the staff and support their emotional health.
- Check with the state Health Department and the ACA for COVID-related information.
Myers-Hill says camps learned a lot of lessons last year about operating successfully this summer. “We can do harder things than we think we can.” Plus, she says, while masks and social distancing at camp is hard at first, they do work. “It’s easier for kids than people think,” she says.
If all else fails, Colette Marquardt, executive director of American Camp Association, Illinois, based in Chicago, says she saw quite a few successful virtual and alternative programs held last summer. While virtual camp was certainly different, it did the one thing it was intended to do: kept the community together, she says. She saw programs offering arts and crafts, songs, even virtual campfires. “It gave them that connection that is so important to their development,” she says.
“We’ve seen what the power of connecting virtually can do,” she says.
This post was originally published in June 2020 and is updated regularly with the latest information.