Summer can be a time of fun, exploration and expanding horizons for children. But at the moment, this summer is filled with uncertainty, because of the coronavirus crisis.
For instance, we had planned on sending our son Jack to baseball camp at Riverside Park. The camp still plans to operate. But the state Health Department still has not ruled whether it will allow children’s camps to operate, and if it does, what kind of restrictions it will impose on them. If Jack’s camp cannot open, well that will be a big swing and a miss for the summer ahead. Many other parents are full of questions right now about what will happen over the next few months. Here is what we know so far:
Are camps opening this summer?
It all depends on where the camp is located and what type of camp it is. Maine and Vermont are permitting sleepaway and day camps to operate. Pennsylvania and Connecticut are allowing day camps to open but not overnight camps. Health officials in New York and New Jersey have not made a final decision. Some camps have gone ahead and cancelled their summers, while others are holding out hoping they can open. The YMCA, which runs multiple camps around town, says it is still waiting for government guidance and has planned for multiple scenarios. But the Y has closed its sleepaway camps for 2020.
"We unfortunately have had to see some sleepway camps not be able to figure out the right way to stay open" said American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Susie Lupert. "There are some sleepaway camps holding on, and we are certainly seeing a lot of day camps try and operate as we see the state open up more and more over the last couple of weeks."
Lupert thinks there is a path for kids to be able to socialize in small groups, and because camps are mostly outside, they think that is a huge advantage. Still, she said camps in New York really need guidance from the state on what the protocols would be if a child or adult staff member at a camp becomes infected.
What's going on with free camps and youth programs run by the city?
Proposed budget cuts would eliminate free camps funded by the city, leaving thousands of families scrambling to find something for their children to do. The cuts also affect the city's summer youth employment program, which provides jobs for 75,000 young people. Mayor de Blasio said he will have more to say about this soon, but noted virtual field trips and clubs are being considered. The city also is working with museums, libraries and the private sector to come up with ways to engage young children and teens this summer. Susie Lupert of the American Camp Association said the city-supported camps have been devastated by these cuts. The camps, she said, are crucial in enabling children to socialize, learn, work, and have something to do. She said they also give parents peace of mind in knowing their children are in a safe place.
What’s happening to the Fresh Air Fund? Will kids still be able to escape the city for camps and homes in the country?
Fresh Air Fund Executive Director Fatima Shama told me that this is a summer that will go down in history for all of us, including her more than 140-year-old organization. The Fresh Air Fund was born out of another public health crisis, a tuberculosis outbreak in 1877. Sadly the organization has cancelled visits by thousands of city kids with families upstate. Its six camps in the Hudson Valley will still be used, but not in the traditional sense. Similar to what was done after 9/11, the Fresh Air Fund will institute family camping.
"When we looked at where our children come from and where COVID is concentrated, they really look the same,” Shama said.
Instead of children going to the Fresh Air Fund camps, entire families will stay in bunks, breathing fresh air and escaping the city together. Shama said the organization is working on virtual camp ideas to bring the outdoors indoors for thousands of children. They are also working with community partners to create summer spaces, safe places in the city where kids can be kids and engage with positive role models.
How will day camps work?
I was a camper and counselor for nine years at the Central Queens YMHA, which is now known as Commonpoint Queens. Camps are held at local facilities and at the beautiful Henry Kaufman Campgrounds on Long Island. Commonpoint CEO Danielle Ellman says they are also waiting for word from the state, but for now, they are proceeding as if they can open but in ways that would limit the possibility of children being exposed to the virus.
"We haven't yet given up on an in-person camp program,” Ellman told me. “While we are also actively exploring collaborating with other Jewish Community Centers and YM-YWHA's on doing some other virtual camping models together.”
So you could see a mix of in-person camp plus virtual ones for families not comfortable with sending their children amid the coronavirus outbreak. Ellman said the not-for-profit social services agency has been running an emergency day care for the children of essential workers, so it has been a practice run of sorts for camp.
"If you were to walk in to visit me, you would be stopped by a nurse who would take your temperature and log it in," said Ellman, who added they have double the cleaning crews as well. She said they feel really confident they can safely run camp, but you might not have sports with contact involved. There would be social distancing protocols, smaller groups, and the ability to contact trace should a child become infected. Ellman says there will be no high fives and hugs, but that's the new world we have to adjust to.
If we don't feel comfortable sending our child to camp, what about virtual camps?
There are a variety of virtual camps already being offered across the five boroughs. Lindsey Peers, who owns The Craft Studio on the Upper East Side, said she started to prepare for online camp programs in early April.
"This is a way that we can keep the fun going and serving our families,” said Peers, who has worked at or owned the popular shop for two decades.
Peers is a mom of three and understands that for kids and parents who have been going through Zoom learning since March, the idea of spending more time in front of a computer might not be desirable. She said that's why they will offer two online sessions a day, so families can choose to attend either one, depending on weather. Fun summer-related crafts are included in a box sent to each child. Tie dye Shirts, sand paintings and summer selfie dolls are on the agenda, and all supplies except scissors and a smock are included.
"I think a big part of what makes people love The Craft Studio is the energy and positivity, and I think we have been able to replicate that online,” said Peers.
How will sleepaway camps work?
Jed Dorfman and his family are planning on heading up to Camp Walt Whitman in New Hampshire in a few weeks. Dorfman and his wife Carolyn are co-directors of the sleepaway camp. Like New York, New Hampshire has not yet decided if camps will be permitted due to the Coronavirus, but Dorfman is still upbeat about the summer.
"We are doing our preparations based on the guidelines on what we were able take out of Maine and Vermont and hoping that New Hampshire ends up with something similar", said Dorfman. "For us, if we can figure out why to do it, then we can figure out how to do it.”
“After what all the campers and everyone is going through the past 10 weeks, if we can give them a camp experience where they are connecting with other kids and able to socialize, then it just makes it so valuable based on what everyone is going through,” Dorfman added.
Dorfman said it's all about keeping everyone there medically safe. They plan on testing staff and campers before they arrive. Staff will arrive two weeks before campers and be quarantined there. They will test staff staff and campers shortly after they arrive as well.
“We are not going to eliminate risk,” Dorfman said. “But certainly will minimize risk.”
He has hired seven registered nurses, two student nurses, an athletic trainer and a doctor to work at the camp. Dorfman said they will have daily temperature checks, and if a child isn't feeling well, they will be brought to a health center. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms would go to a separate health center than those with everyday bumps and bruises.
"It will be a different experience" said Dorfman. “It won't be exactly how it's been in the past.”
Dorfman said if a camper expects it to be like last summer, they will be dissapointed.
But it sure beats hanging out at home.
American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey
The Fresh Air Fund
YMCA of Greater New York
The Craft Studio