"We feel very confident that we've got a good game plan to keep everybody safe this summer and still have a lot of fun," said Jim Politis, camp director of Mountain Camp Woodside, which is hosted at Woodside Priory School's campus.
Unlike some camps in the nation that pushed to keep their programs running last year, Mountain Camp Woodside erred on the side of complete caution and made the difficult decision to shut down both of its day and overnight operations.
"When the pandemic hit in March, I was on a number of weekly, daily, Zoom calls with my colleagues, who are part of a couple different camp professional associations — just Zoom call after, Zoom call, about how to operate," Politis said. "We were fighting as hard as we could to figure out a way to operate — we had different operating plans, contingency plans on what we were going to do — up until the point when we decided not to run."
On June 15, Politis announced on the company's Instagram page that camp wouldn't be operational that summer: "Unfortunately, even if we did everything 100% right, there's no way we would be able to guarantee everybody's safety."
The shutdown of camps wrought a multitude of consequences, including financial losses and unemployment. For children, putting the American tradition on hold resulted in a missed rite of passage and developmental opportunity.
"Summer is the peak of the year that you look forward to all year-round," said Dave Barth, CEO and director of Run For Fun Camps, which operates a day camp in Palo Alto and overnight camp in Pinecrest Lake. "All of a sudden, not only are you hit with not getting to do what you love, but you lose the revenue stream that you use to pay your full-time staff.
"You feel a little bit like you lost your identity," Barth added.
This year, Mountain Camp Woodside, Run For Fun and other local camps are hoping to get people out of their Zoom rooms and back to camp. This decision is not only guided by some optimistic news of increasing vaccine rollouts, but also, nearly a year into the pandemic, by case studies and data of which interventions work and which don't when cohorts of children are put together in confined spaces.
But hurdles still lie ahead. Camp directors in California, for example, are still waiting on guidance from the state health department as they continue to formulate a reopening strategy for their sleepaway programs.
"Overnight camp is a little more tricky," Barth said. "I would say there's a 90% chance that we're going to run, but it will depend on those state guidelines that everyone is waiting for."
So far, camp directors have had to look to surrounding camp leaders as well as regional and national camp associations, such as the Western Association of Independent Camps and the American Camp Association, to determine best practices.
And where state and local guidelines fail, many in the past year have turned to a 123-page "Field Guide" created for the American Camp Association and YMCA that has become a sort of de facto bible for camp directors.
The handbook outlines how to implement COVID-19 protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at camps: screening campers' temperatures, isolation protocols, how many masks each overnight camper should have (the guideline recommends at least 10), directions on disinfecting swimming pools, and a recently added chapter on vaccine protocols and whether to exclude campers who do not receive them (at this time, the guide does recommend doing so).
Despite the guidance, Barth and Politis both say that a question mark still hangs over overnight programs.
"Everyone's sort of holding their breath, waiting for that state guideline to officially come out," Barth said. "(The handbook) is a helpful resource that we've been using to create what we think will be our best shot of leading overnight camps successfully."
In-person day camps are another matter, given that state and local health departments have already outlined safe operating procedures and schools have reinstituted in-person learning.
"Day camps are a little bit easier because we've got a lot of models to go off of, i.e. schools," Politis said. "A lot of schools have been operating safely. ... That's easy."
At Run For Fun Camps, which restarted its afterschool program on Aug. 17, masks, outdoor activity and smaller cohorts of kids that were restricted from mixing were essential for a safe fall and winter session. Pool noodles also came in handy, according to Barth.
"We've tried to think outside the box," Barth said. "We use pool noodles to try and implement some sort of distancing because a lot of our games pre-COVID-19 were touch and tag-based."
At Oshman Family Jewish Community Center's J-Camp, a day camp that operated last July, campers practiced constant sanitization and mask-wearing — and sang hand-washing songs.
"We made it fun," said Rebecca Bigman, camp director of J-Camp. "We created our own mask-wearing camp traditions."
Research has given camp directors some measure of reassurance. A study by Duke University School of Medicine found that day camps that took precautions saw minimal spread of the coronavirus. The research was based on an analysis of YMCA day camps in six North Carolina counties that hosted a total of 6,000 children and staff members, and where 39% of camps even primarily offered indoor activities.
"Only 19 cases of symptomatic disease among 6,830 children and staff members" were found, according to the report.
Directors at Run for Fun Camps and J-Camp reported no outbreaks of COVID-19 at their day camps. At Run For Fun, Barth said there were "close calls" in which family members of children reported positive results, but there was no spread within the camp. Similarly, at J-Camp, Dave Rosenfeld, director of youth and teens, reported a "handful" of exposures from outside communities, but zero transmission within its campus and cohorts.
"All of our measures have been really successful," Rosenfeld said.
Data on overnight summer camps are a bit more limited. In September, the CDC published a case study of four overnight summer camps in Maine — with 1,022 attendees from 41 states and international locations — that prevented an outbreak by adhering to "pre-arrival quarantine, pre- and post-arrival testing and symptom screening, cohorting, use of face coverings, physical distancing, enhanced hygiene measures, cleaning and disinfecting, and maximal outdoor programming."
After a week, testing of the campers turned up only three asymptomatic cases, who then were put in quarantine, as were their contacts. No one else caught the virus, the study said.
So far, camp directors are seeing varying degrees of enthusiasm about returning to camp based on recent enrollment numbers. In a normal summer, Run For Fun sees about 450 kids each year. Currently, Barth said, day and overnight camp enrollment remains "very, very low."
But Nancy Evars, a business owner and mother of three, says she's looking forward to sending two of her children this summer to Mountain Camp Woodside, which has been a family tradition for more than 10 years. Evars believes overnight programs in particular are an important part of childhood development.
"I feel like that's where you really become independent and learn a lot about yourself, away from your parents," Evars said.
"Our children have really suffered the most throughout all of this," she said. "I feel like it's time for them to get back to school; it's time for them to get back to sports; and it's time for them to get back to camp."
It's not just campers who are eager for the return of the summer tradition — so are young adults like Arnold Wu, 18, who hoped to get his first job at Mountain Camps last year after graduating from Palo Alto High School. Due to the lockdown, however, Wu went to Hong Kong to stay with his grandparents while he attended his first year virtually at U.C. Berkeley.
In May, he'll return home to Palo Alto and be a summer camp counselor, with or without having received the vaccine, he said.
"Being in a summer camp as a kid, I know how much of a meaningful experience it is for kids," he said. "I'm hoping to give back to my community by allowing kids to have a similar experience I had."