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  • Writer's pictureBrian VanDongen

The Great Summer Camp Experiment of 2020

It is no secret that as I write this in late June 2020 that the world is different. We've been through a global pandemic and public health crisis.

Stay-at-home orders across the country and across the world were issued for weeks, sometimes for months. Businesses ordered to be closed. Schools moved to virtual instruction. Indoor and outdoor gatherings, banned. Playgrounds, off-limits.

That was our reality across the United States since mid-March because of the novel coronavirus and associated disease, COVID-19.

As the infection, hospitalization, and death rates decreased as these extraordinary measures were implemented, they were slowly (or, in the case of some states, perhaps to rapidly) removed. Non-essential businesses were allowed to open with limited capacity. Gathering limits increased. Parks and playgrounds open again.

And with these openings come the hope of schools reopening for in-person instruction in the fall. Virtual schooling is certainly not the ideal. Of course there is a desire among the government, school boards, teachers, parents, and even students to reopen the school doors in August or September.

It will regain a sense of normalcy in a world that the coronavirus has made anything but "normal."

Before schools start in the fall though, there is a place that children are going in June, July, and August: summer camp.

Summer camps, at their core, serve two basic needs. One, camps often provide parents the child care services they need as their children are not in school while parents work in the summer months. Two, summer camps help child development.

But this year, in 2020, summer camps are serving a third need: a controlled experiment on how best, if at all, to reopen schools in the fall.

Because so much of this virus remains unknown, there needs to be tests on how to safely and effectively reopen the economy and schools. What better place to learn methods and strategies to prevent and mitigate spread of the virus among children and adults in school for the fall, than at camps in the summer?

Summer camps are providing the testing grounds.

As an Assistant Director of Recreation in an old farming town in western New Jersey, one of my roles is to serve as Summer Camp Director.

Yes, we are opening summer camp this year (starting next week, following the executive order).

Yes, the camp is going to look and be different, a "new normal."

Yes, we are following all state guidelines, all CDC guidelines, and national association (such as the National Recreation and Park Association and American Camping Association) suggestions and recommendations.

Yes, I am confident we are offering the best program we can while following all these.

But, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little anxious or concerned about the potential infection and subsequent spread of coronavirus at camp.

Because the thing is, I, the staff, and the campers can do everything correctly, everything 100% by the book, at our camp. What I can't control, what the staff can't control, is what happens during non-camp hours.

The state of New Jersey requires camp directors to send messages to parents reminding them how to best prevent the spread of the virus. But I can't control who follows that during non-camp hours.

Just like school boards, principals, teachers, and school nurses can control what happens at their school. But that's it.

The different parental concerns I've received about running a safe camp this year illustrate that point. It seems that camp is both taking too many preventative measures, but also that there are also not enough preventative measures. For example, face coverings are required during non-strenuous activities where social distancing cannot be maintained. Other times, face coverings are not required. And, yes, it is hot during the summer. The staff will be mindful of that, as well.

What is right, what is wrong? I don't know. I am not an infectious disease expert. I am not a public health expert. What I do know is that I can follow the guidance released by the state health department and the CDC for our camps and for me personally.

While many states have released guidance on how to return to schools, how much of that guidance will change after summer camps operate? What if the infection rate increases? What if the virus spreads more rapidly outside than once thought? What if symptomatic children are carrying the virus, spread it at camp, and subsequently to their families, who may show symptoms and test positive?

What better place to learn about how schools can safely operate in the fall, than camps in the summer? Groups of children with adult supervision sounds a lot like school to me.

I'm not saying whether this is good or bad, right or wrong.

What I am saying is that this year is going to be different. This year, camps have an even more important role. This year, camps have to be even more vigilant, even more cautious, even more responsible.

There is often an informal "passing of the baton" between teachers and camp directors. Teachers are largely responsible for children and their development during the school year, and camps during the summer.

This year, though, that baton is not the same baton. The baton is bigger, heavier, and more cumbersome to carry. It is a new baton. And camp directors are the ones with its burden.

Summer camps are leading this great experiment. Leading how to safely operate with groups of children. Leading how best prevent the spread of the virus in educational and pseudo-educational settings.

And we have to get this right. Because the future, more so than ever before, depends on us.

Featured image: IMG_4895 by Jeff Martin

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