RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For more than a year, many kids have been unable to go to school, see their friends or participate in activities in the ways they were used to before the pandemic. For a generation already attached to technology, they’ve spent extra time on their computers whether it be to stay in touch with peers or attend school.
This lack of interaction with other kids prompted Liz Mullican Garrison to send her daughter to day camps for the first time this summer.
Garrison said her daughter spent much of the last year and a half alone with technology or just with her parents. She is an only child who is starting middle school in Henrico County this fall after spending almost her entire fifth-grade year learning from home.
“I think she’s suffered socially,” Garrison said. Despite not knowing anyone going into the camp programs, Garrison said her daughter was able to make friends quickly and have a great time.
Tom Rosenburg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, said the last year and a half has been traumatizing for kids and has potentially impeded their social and emotional development. He explained that it’s important for kids to safely get away from their parents and personal devices.
He says that kids have been starved of social and emotional connections.
In 2020, only 18% of ACA-affiliated overnight camps were open and about 60% of day camps. To prepare for more camps to reopen, the organization researched best practices for operating a camp during this pandemic and released a report on camp practices. They have also been following CDC guidelines.
Camp Chanco on The James in Spring Grove, Virginia, was one of those camps that closed their doors in 2020 and then reopened its cabins to campers in 2021.
Courtney Mason, with Camp Chanco, said their 2021 bookings were up from 2019.
Mason, a senior staff member at Camp Chanco, thinks camp is really important in terms of social development because for a lot of kids it is the first time they get to be independent. She said it allows them to find out who they are as people.
“It’s hard to learn how to live with other human beings in general, there’s a lot of life skill that is garnered when you come to camp,” Mason said.
Mason said the ability to try new things in a controlled environment helps kids conquer certain fears. At sleepaway camps that could be climbing to new heights on a ropes course or staying away from home for the first time.
“I think that in terms of like social and spiritual development, I will always stand by the fact that I think camps are really, really important in that,” Mason said.
Camp Chanco scrambled to find staff members for summer 2021, specifically those willing to spend weeks straight in the woods while following COVID mitigation strategies.
Staff and campers who attended summer camps this year did not enter those programs without risk.
Camp Chanco, which had larger groups of kids staying there overnight for one to two weeks at a time, kept staff and campers in cohorts to try and avoid a complete shutdown if someone tested positive for COVID-19. The camp also required all campers and staff to test either ahead of or upon arrival for COVID-19.
After arriving, kids were split into groups, with each one in its own campsite which has multiple six-person, open-air cabins. Those cohorts did all of their activities together throughout the day. The entire camp was seated for meals and evening activities at the same time but was broken into socially distant sections outdoors.
Additionally, when campers and staff interacted with people outside of their cohort, masks were worn. Mason said the kids and staff were typically only in masks for about two hours a day. If someone were to have contracted the virus, there were policies in place to have their cohort undergo a strict quarantine and participate in pre-planned, self-led activities. Anytime a child or worker got sick during the summer, the entire campsite was tested. Mason said entering the final weeks of camp they had not had a positive test yet.
Rosenberg said many camp programs used what is called a “Swiss cheese defense,” explaining that no singular mitigation strategy will fully protect people from the virus but having a layered series of protections in place will help better prevent the virus spread.
“If you think of each of these layers of protection as Swiss cheese, one slice, there can be holes in it, if you stack up all the different layers, essentially blocks through all those layers and so that’s kind of the metaphor that has been talked about quite a lot these days,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg noted that nationally some summer camps did see outbreaks but that it was “a very small number” compared to the thousands of camps that operated over the summer.
One of the camps Garrison’s daughter attended had to close early due to a positive case of COVID-19.
The first two camps her child attended finished as planned and then the third program, a week-long morning camp, ended on the second day. After one camper tested positive for the virus, the camp decided to close for the rest of the week.
During the program, campers and staff wore masks, seating was spread out and good hand hygiene was practiced.
“They did what they could do there,” Garrison said. “I’m guessing the child just contracted it prior to coming to camp and then exhibited symptoms that second day of camp.”
Garrison doesn’t hold any hard feelings against the camp and said after the cancelation the families received a full refund. She plans to take a portion of the refund and donate it back to the program.
Now with school districts reopening, families are seeing similar issues in schools that camps managed through during the summer. Hopewell City Public Schools temporarily closed this summer due to staffing shortages brought on by COVID-19 cases, quarantines and routine sick days. In Chesterfield County, over 230 public schools students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since the return to classrooms.
With many engagements limited to a computer, school and social activities complicated by COVID-19 and some kids experiencing the trauma of losing loved ones to the virus, Rosenberg said children are entering this school year with heightened emotions.
“The implication for parents, for teachers, for school districts, and for camp directors is, you know, kids, we need to expect that kids are going to need a longer adjustment period,” Rosenberg said.