At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester this summer, children will have a chance to participate in live theater, play sports, and maybe go on field trips.
But drop-offs and pickups are still done outdoors to limit the number of people in the building. Masks will be required indoors, though they can come off outside. Families are surveyed periodically about their comfort levels and COVID safety procedures.
“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all plan for the recovery, so we just have to go forward with small steps, carefully, and be transparent,” said Mary Kinsella Scannell, senior vice president of education and programming for the Dorchester clubs. “We know it took us a year to reopen safely. We went into this with our advisory task force and a lot of input from our families. And that’s how we’ll slowly exit out.”
After being closed, remote, or encumbered by restrictions last year, day and overnight camps are getting ready to welcome children once again this summer. It’s a chance for children to socialize and learn, and a lifeline for parents who need child care to work outside the home. But challenges remain, especially with children under 12 not eligible for vaccines.
Amid the lingering health and safety protocols, the camps offer a joyful change for children and teenagers who had fewer opportunities to socialize with their peers in person over the last 15 months.
“I’ve been in the camping industry for 25 years, and it’s just a whole new feeling this year,” said Michele Rowcliffe, executive director of the American Camp Association, New England chapter. “There’s excitement, and there’s just a whole new sense of purpose.”
Camps, many of which were closed or operated remotely last summer, will probaby look different, Rowcliffe said. Maybe a slate of free-choice activities will be replaced by a set schedule that campers can follow with their bunkmates. Parent and family visiting days might be on Zoom.
Depending on the camp, the age group, and the circumstances, children and staff might get tested before they can freely mingle.
Camps are also navigating varying access to vaccines, Rowcliffe said; while children over age 12 are able to get doses, younger kids are not. Even teenagers who are eligible might not be vaccinated, and camps serving children who are more medically vulnerable are taking more precautions, she said.
“After stepping back last summer, everybody is so willing to do what needs to be done,” Rowcliffe said. “It’s a very resilient group, and there’s been a really resilient group of parents sticking with us.”
Children who during the pandemic were asked to constantly adapt to new conditions are now going to be asked to acclimate to new surroundings and rules at camp.
“Camps know they have to be sensitive to this reentry,” said Lauren Nearpass, co-founder of Summer 365, a New York-based company that helps match families with summer camps. “There’s going be a re-acclimation and transition that’s going to take place.”
Some parents who contact Nearpass’ company wanted details on the safety protocols: Will there be masks? Will campers be separated into pods or cohorts? What are the testing plans? But most parents, she said, are more eager to talk about giving their children a chance to escape from pandemic restrictions and feel a bit of freedom this summer. They ask about programming and cabins, about food and the camp culture.
Families who don’t usually send their children to sleepaway camps expressed more interest this year, Nearpass said.
“COVID certainly came up, and there were a couple of questions. But I have to tell you, by and large those were very nominal,” she said.
This will be the second COVID summer for Jake and Kerry Labovitz, co-directors of Windsor Mountain Summer Camp in Windsor, N.H. Last summer, after about a week of keeping their campers with only their bunkmates, they called all 125 campers out to a large deck and delivered exciting news: They had all tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 and could mingle with campers from other cabins.
The campers were “beyond ecstatic,” Kerry Labovitz said.
“It really showed the power of community, and what these kids needed. It basically, in a moment, showed us why we were doing what we were doing,” she said. “It was all worth it. They needed it.”
In all, they had about 250 campers ages 6 to 16 across two sessions last summer without an outbreak. This summer, as they prepare to welcome 500 more over two three-and-a-half week sessions, they reinstated and updated many of the same protocols: Campers will have to present proof of vaccination or a recent and negative PCR test before they arrive. They will be tested again when they get to camp, and one more time six days later. They’ll be kept in small cohorts until testing confirms there are no active cases of the virus.
In addition, counselors and other staff members will spend more time during orientation talking about mental health — campers’ and their own — and how to handle homesickness and trouble with adjusting.
“One of the most difficult aspects last year was the last day of camp,” Jake Labovitz said, when campers knew they were leaving a bubble of relative freedom to go back to restrictions and remote schooling. “I’m really looking forward to the end of this summer, when these kids are hopefully not going to feel that same sense of heaviness and uncertainty.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.