- A recent CDC report revealed how four summer camps in Maine were able to operate while successfully limiting COVID-19 transmission.
- Jack Hodgson, a former director at a non-profit New Jersey summer camp, now a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, says this is encouraging news — but there are several caveats.
- Not every camp will have the infrastructure and resources in place to pull off what occurred in Maine.
- The "culture of compliance" was a major reason for the Maine camps' success — and that will be difficult to achieve on most college campuses, not to mention within the rest of the country.
- To keep students and faculty safe, colleges must meet high standards of safety; right now, camps are showing them up.
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A recent CDC study showed how four Maine summer camps operated successfully without COVID-19 transmission this summer. It's great news for an industry that has taken a big hit, and the study also includes important takeaways for schools and colleges.
As a former summer camp director who now works in higher education, I won't be breaking out the S'mores or deleting my Zoom app just yet. Here's why.
What the Maine camps did right
When it comes to coronavirus, you cannot be hopeful or casual in your approach. Things can go wrong quickly. A single camp in Georgia saw 260 cases. The University of Alabama had at least 560 after being open a week.
The folks in Maine showed us what can work. Staff and campers isolated pre-arrival and were tested on arrival. Positive cases were isolated, and contacts quarantined. Camp also looked a little different: Indoor programs were minimized, sports were played with kids staying apart, and strict mask-wearing rules were in place. Small groups were formed who dined together, and bathroom access was limited to single cohorts.
Despite this, a small number of cases came up. Thorough monitoring, speedy isolation, and quick testing prevented any transmissions from those cases.
What this means for other camps
In a normal year, camping is a $26 billion industry that employs over a million staff to host over 25 million kids. Only 18% of overnight camps opened this year.
In an industry that includes a significant number of non-profits, who provide transformative experiences to the most deserving, this is tragic.
For the first time since 1899, my old stomping ground, YMCA Camp Mason (Hardwick, New Jersey) did not host summer camp. Camps like Mason have adapted their business models to these uncertain times. The CEO there, Keith VanDerzee, told me how renting cabins out to families, who agreed to staggered amenity access and other rules, had helped ensure camp would be there for kids next summer. His focus now is on helping local schools learn safely in cohorts by using the camp's 500 acre facility.
This CDC report helps camps look to next year with optimism. The American Camp Association has commissioned four more research projects. Their president and CEO Tom Rosenberg told me the priority is safety as the ACA works to "harvest all the knowledge possible" from this summer for 2021.
Putting my director's hat back on, I think that there will be some that don't open. Not every camp will have the infrastructure and resources in place to pull off what they did in Maine. Suitable buildings for isolation of individuals and cohorts will need to exist. Someone will need to pay for a lot of tests and an enhanced cleaning regime. Improving ventilation may mean expensive construction work for some camps.
These measures will be more important, too, with kids back in school and guardians back at work, making pre-arrival isolation challenging. The ACA is right to be putting measures in place for next summer already.
What about schools and colleges?
For residential schools, the findings of this report will be easily applicable. For typical schools, with kids going home to parents with public-facing jobs, the same level of protection is impossible. Decision-makers need to understand they are more vulnerable. In such cases, the lead author of the CDC study, Dr. Laura Blaisdell, says it's increasingly important that all other measures are strictly implemented.
Given the size and riches of institutions, colleges have come up with laughable and flimsy reopening plans. Yale even told students to "emotionally prepare" for deaths in their community. That's not a reopening plan.
Dr. Blaisdell's study sets the standards needed for success, but some measures will not work for colleges. Outside programming at summer camp, the world of "liquid sunshine" and rainbows, works — but that's not going to fly in Vermont in December. Creating and enforcing cohort bathroom usage seems like a nonstarter too.
Leaders must consider if they are meeting enough standards. If they are not, they need to reconsider plans for face-to-face teaching.
Camps and the "culture of compliance"
In an email to me, Blaisdell highlighted to me how important a "culture of compliance" was in the success achieved in Maine. This is the solution — but it's also a problem. America in 2020 doesn't seem to vibe with a "culture of compliance" when it comes to social distancing and masks; the very phrase is probably going to get some folk hollering "freedom" and reaching for the nearest star-spangled-banner.
In camps, you can have that culture. As a camp leader, I've had teenagers don tin-foil hats, crush watermelons (alien eggs), and explore a hole (meteorite crater) for clues. Last year, I couldn't get all undergraduates to do the reading or double-space their essays. Hoping for a "culture of compliance" in a large college community for a prolonged period seems fanciful.
The bottom line
The CDC report is great news for camps, showing what is possible. The industry is wasting no time in learning everything it can for next year so more kids will get back to camp. The planning going into that is showing up those in higher education. Leaders there must quickly figure out if they can realistically achieve the same standards to keep students and faculty safe.
Jack Hodgson is a former director at a non-profit New Jersey summer camp, a freelance writer, private tutor, and a PhD candidate at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England. He teaches both history and American studies.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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