YMCA, American Camp Association Release Guide For Opening Summer Camps

May 18, 2020
Originally published on May 18, 2020 8:28 pm

In a typical summer, more than 14 million campers and staff attend overnight and day camps in the United States. But summer 2020 will be far from typical. To prepare for that, the nation's largest summer camp associations, the American Camp Association and the YMCA of the USA, have released a "field guide" for how summer and day camps can operate more safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 82-page guide, prepared by a private consulting firm, offers best practices on everything from swimming to arts and crafts. The document is far more detailed than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official guidance for summer camps, which fits on a single page flow chart.

The field guide emphasizes that camps should open only where state and local authorities permit it, and in locations that have met the criteria for "Phase 2" and "Phase 3" reopening as designated by the Trump administration — which generally translates to ample room in hospitals plus more than two weeks' decline in symptoms, cases and the ratio of positive tests.

The camp associations' safety plan starts with screening all campers and staff for symptoms. Camps may ask campers and staff to take their temperatures daily for up to two weeks before arriving, and to self-report COVID-19 symptoms, such as a sore throat or loss of taste or smell. After campers and staff arrive, camps may continue to screen as often as daily, isolating or sending home anyone with symptoms. (The guide links to a summary of the latest scientific evidence indicating low case numbers among children, and the limited role children play in spreading the coronavirus, although a few cases of a serious inflammatory syndrome in children have been worrisome.)

The guide doesn't assume that all campers and staff will have access to coronavirus testing. But if enough tests are available, it suggests overnight camps could consider operating as a single "bubble," admitting only campers and staff who test negative, and "shelter in place" for the duration of the camp session.

Another key concept is "cohorts," or "households." The field guide suggests grouping campers and counselors in as small a group as possible for all daily activities involving close contact. Some state guidelines set this maximum at 10 campers. The idea is not only to limit spread, but also, should a case be identified, to be able to quickly trace that person's contacts.

Many of the document's recommendations would make it much more expensive to operate a camp. (Think: smaller groups, more frequent cleaning, providing enough equipment like life preservers so that campers don't have to share.) Paul McEntire, chief operations officer of the YMCA, tells NPR, "I am aware of some Y camps that have made basically a business decision that it's better to forego this summer, cut expenses way back and be prepared for next year."

On the other hand, Gregg Hunter, president and CEO of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, says some camp directors are determined to open. "They've told me, 'If they say we can open for 10 kids, we will have 10 kids,' because they know kids need camp and they want to provide that service for them."

Many summer camps, including day camps run by the YMCA, are hoping to reopen, even if on a delayed schedule. A partial list includes camps in Arizona, Connecticut, Texas, Montana, Colorado, New York, Vermont. Other camps have cancelled summer programs all together.

With tens of millions of Americans out of work, many families can no longer afford summer camp. And even for those who can, it's unclear whether parents will feel comfortable sending kids to camp. An unscientific poll by Slate found 83% of respondents would not feel comfortable sending their child to sleepaway camp, and 66% said no to day camp.

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And I'm Ailsa Chang. In a typical summer, more than 14 million children and staff members head to camp. But, of course, this summer is anything but typical, and today the country's largest summer camp associations jointly released a field guide to operating while reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Anya Kamenetz from our ed team has been reporting on what summer might look like this year, and she joins us now.

Hey, Anya.


CHANG: So I know the question on a lot of parents' minds this year is, is camp actually going to happen this year? My guess is most are canceled.

KAMENETZ: I would say many are canceled, especially overnight camps. And, of course, it depends on case numbers continuing to decline. But I have seen reports of camps planning to open, really, across the country - in Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Montana, Texas. And even here in New York City, which has been the epicenter of the pandemic, the YMCA day camps are currently taking registrations.

CHANG: Wow. That seems kind of surprising to me.

KAMENETZ: You know, I think it's a testament to the need, first of all, for child care on the part of working parents.

CHANG: Sure.

KAMENETZ: ...As well as a break for children, right? So I reported recently that the pandemic stay-at-home orders have really had a negative impact on some children's mental health. And I talked to Tom Rosenberg, the CEO of the American Camp Association, which, along with the Y, put out these guidelines. And he says this hits home in his household with his son, who's 12. Here's Tom.

TOM ROSENBERG: My son is on his computer probably 10 1/2 hours a day.


KAMENETZ: Yeah, and that's pretty typical, you know? And he says even though his son's relatively privileged...

ROSENBERG: Every child in our country needs these kinds of experiences this summer more than any summer, more than ever.

CHANG: I mean, that's so true. So now there's this new guidance for camps. What does this field guide say?

KAMENETZ: So these two groups told me they really saw the need to expand on what was a very limited flowchart that was finally officially released by the CDC last week. And so in this 82-page guide, they say, you know, first of all, your state has to be in what the Trump administration calls phase 2 or phase 3 of reopening, which means a sustained decline, essentially, in cases, plenty of room in hospitals. And so if that's OK, then the guide emphasizes, you know, that you screen both staff and campers both before camp starts and during camp, that you're screening by taking temperatures and having self-reporting of common symptoms like sore throats. There's a lot of information in here about cleaning and disinfection routines. And then they're very - interestingly, they put in this concept of cohorts.

CHANG: Cohorts? What does that mean in this context?

KAMENETZ: So the idea here is you would keep groups of campers and staff together as small a group as possible. Some state guidelines say, you know, no more than 10 campers in a group, and that is your cohort. And you would make sure that this group is consistent and the groups are separated from each other for all the activities, including meals. And this is to limit the number of contacts across a camp and make it easy, in case there's some exposure or some positive test - easier to trace and isolate people.

CHANG: What about any recommendations on specific activities at these camps?

KAMENETZ: So first of all, staying outdoors as much as possible seems to be indicated, and that's something we've heard from other public health guidelines - that there's less transmission outdoors. Secondly, they talk about swimming, which is a huge classic when it comes to summer camp. The guidance is, you know, this virus is not waterborne, so it shouldn't be a problem as long as you don't mix groups of children.

CHANG: And do these best practices seem feasible?

KAMENETZ: You know, I think that there are some encouraging signs. For example, YMCA has been operating a central child care at 1,100 sites, and they have not had a transmission yet.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

Thanks, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.