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Pandemic Parenting

What should kids expect at summer camps this year?

As they cautiously plan to reopen, day and overnight camps are putting a host of new protocols into place.

Illustration of six kids at camp
Linzie Hunter for the Boston Globe

After spending close to a year cooped up with our children, nearly every parent I know, myself included, has been anxiously waiting to hear whether camp is a go this summer. We are desperate to get our kids off screens, outside, and socializing with real people in real time. Well, it looks like morning reveilles will be sounding once more across New England this summer, as day and overnight camps raise their flags and open for business — albeit with a bevy of COVID-19 safety protocols.

Just what will camp look like in year two of the pandemic? The short answer is: It’s still a work in progress, given that guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state public health officials, and the American Camp Association can change weekly. “We are planning for all scenarios,” says Amy Podolsky, director at Sewataro day camp in Sudbury. It’s possible that by the beginning of summer, camp staffers could be among the essential workers approved to receive the vaccine, per recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

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Before opening last summer, Sewataro introduced a series of new health protocols. Parents were required to take their children’s temperature and complete a health screening at home before drop-off every day. Each camper was then grouped with the same 10 kids and two counselors for the entirety of the two-week session. Campers and staff wore masks, washed and sanitized their hands frequently, and practiced social distancing. The camp also hired extra cleaning staff and more nurses, who kept vigil over kids ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade.

The safeguards worked — Sewataro successfully hosted 690 campers over the course of the summer without a single infection — and camp still felt like something special. “The magic was still there,” Podolsky says. “We had tears in our eyes, seeing our campers together.” Camp was “boiled down to the essence of what it’s all about: being outside, making friends, and playing.”

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Still, there were traditions that had to be shelved or modified. There were no swim lessons, for instance, but the kids were just happy to be in the water playing with their friends, Podolsky says. And new traditions arose that may outlast the pandemic — such as Breathing Trees, an idea one of Podolsky’s staffers came up with to give campers a moment to catch their breath and take off their masks — each under a different tree around the 44-acre property.

Reimagining the camp experience “was simultaneously one of the best and hardest things I’ve done,” Podolsky says. But she emphasizes that it was worth it: “Kids need camp now more than ever.”

Ephram A. Caflun, director at Camp Wekeela in Hartford, Maine, agrees — which is why he and his staff decided they were up for the challenge last summer, even though 82 percent of overnight camps across the country didn’t open, according to the American Camp Association. Central to Wekeela’s 14-page response plan was to create a bubble. They asked campers, who signed up for two- to five-week sessions, to quarantine for two weeks at home before coming to camp, and then to provide proof of a negative COVID test 72 hours before they arrived. Once at Wekeela, they were tested three more times (on day one and then again four and eight days later) and were kept in pods with their bunkmates until they got the results.

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After that third test, and a fifth for staff, Caflun made a big announcement in the dining hall: Everyone had tested negative. He found himself choking back tears. “It was an incredibly emotional moment,” he says. Kids ran across the room — finally able to hug one another after months of isolation at home.

Afterward, the day-to-day felt “normal,” Caflun says, “not a watered-down version of camp.” They were able to keep most traditions intact — including the camp play and the field day competitions. They also learned that these days, less is more than enough: “For the kids, just being at camp was plenty,” he says. And because they knew what they were going back to, no one took for granted their time away in a bubble of normalcy.

After hearing about the successes of Sewataro and Wekeela, I was eager to know the status of my twins’ camp, North Woods YMCA Overnight Camp for Boys on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. It remained shuttered last summer, despite a herculean effort by Kate Lemay, the YMCA of Greater Boston’s executive director of overnight camps, which includes North Woods and the Pleasant Valley YMCA Camp for Girls. Making the decision not to open last summer was “gutting,” Lemay recalls. “I felt like I had just disappointed 2,000 people in one fell swoop.”

But that made Lemay even more determined to make camp happen this year. “We feel really solid about our plans,” she says, thanks to the example set by the few overnight camps that managed to open, as well as guidance from the New Hampshire Camp Directors Association and the 123-page Field Guide for Camps put out by the American Camp Association and the YMCA.

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As at Wekeela, the YMCA camps will require testing prior to camp, and then again upon arrival, Lemay says, and there will be enhanced cleaning protocols. Kids will be placed in pods of eight campers and two staffers and will stay with their pod all day, moving from activities like archery and swimming to riflery and a ropes course. The camp’s service crew is already busy building more picnic tables, so that kids can spread out for mealtimes in the dining hall and under tents.

One COVID-era improvement? No more waiting in interminably long lines for camp check-in. Each family will reserve an arrival time in advance. Parents will likely not be permitted to accompany their children to their cabins. (Yes, your kids will have to make their own bunk beds — another bonus!)

Of course, none of that really matters to my teenage boys. All they want to know is: Will it be fun? Absolutely, Lemay says. “We will always find ways for laughter and fun and play.”

That’s the goal of all the camp directors I talked to: Fun. Last summer, The Trustees of Reservations, which typically has day camps at seven of its properties across Massachusetts, successfully ran four camps, which offered immersive themed experiences, including those focused on art, farming, science, and cooking. Because most of the programs are based in nature, it was easy to adapt them to be outside, says Julie Bernson, the associate director of learning. Kids cooked outdoors and explored more of the surrounding woods and ponds. “It was an amazing experience,” she says. “Everyone was just so grateful to have camp.” This year, The Trustees plans to run all seven camps and possibly add an eighth.

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By April, the Boston Centers for Youth & Families hopes to open registration for its free and low-cost programs around the city, which are likely to be a hybrid of remote and in-person opportunities, says Sandy Holden, public information manager. The agency is particularly focusing on younger teens, who aren’t yet old enough to get summer jobs but tend to be too old for traditional day camps. Last year, every spot for SuperTeens, a program for 13- and 14-year-olds with educational and recreational activities, field trips, and service projects, was filled in just a few days. As an example, the teens used software to design their “ultimate community center,” then presented their ideas at the end of the session. Based on the success of these programs, Holden is confident the centers will be able to provide similar offerings, with requisite health screenings both at home and at drop-off, as well as capacity limits, masks, social distancing, and regular sanitizing. “We heard from a lot of parents that they were so happy to get their kids out of the house,” Holden says.

The truth is, after another topsy-turvy year of remote and in-person learning, our kids are likely willing to do whatever it takes: A mask? A temperature check? Another squirt of sanitizer? No problem — for even just a few hours with someone other than Mom or Dad.


Julie Suratt is a writer in Wayland. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.