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Small groups, sanitizing, and s’mores: How summer camps are preparing for kids amid pandemic

people gathered around a campfire
Children’s day camps in Michigan can reopen June 8. Overnight camps are still waiting to hear if, and how, they'll be allowed to operate this summer.";

Some parents and guardians staring down the prospect of a long summer with young kids cooped up at home are breathing a sigh of relief. When Governor Gretchen Whitmer lifted the COVID-19 stay home order, she loosened the restrictions on many businesses and programs. That includes children’s day camps, which will be allowed to reopen starting June 8.

The governor’s order notes that day camps are subject to safety guidance from the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), and that overnight and troop camps must remain closed for now.

Under the state's safety guidelines, day camps must have a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and share it with employees and families. They’re also required to check staff and campers for COVID-19 symptoms upon their arrival at camp each day. 

Dave Morgan, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo, says they’ve already been offering childcare for children of essential workers, which has informed how the organization will approach its day camp programming.

A key change to normal camp operations, he explained, is that kids will be kept in smaller groups than usual, with the same staff members supervising everyday. Staff will be sanitizing equipment and activity spaces regularly, and doing health checks for children, family members, and staff before anyone enters program spaces.

Swimming is “still a little bit up in the air,” as the Kalamazoo YMCA’s pools are indoors and still closed. Field trips are also off the table because of the challenges of staying socially distant on a school bus. Morgan says it's a way to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, while still providing kids with a special camp experience.  

“They’re going to have their daily transitions from dramatic play to STEM activities, physical activities to dramatic play, all of that will continue on," he said. "And the staff will make sure that the kids have that special experience. We want the kids to be able to return to some sense of normalcy."

Jeff "Jake" Jacobs is the director of Camp Henry, a residential camp in Newaygo. Jacobs was part of a group of Michigan camp directors, LARA representatives, and policy advisers in the governor’s office who have been working to develop a plan for overnight camps to operate this summer. 

“I think the word is there’s a draft of those resident camp guidelines that are in the works, and I think they hope to share those with this workgroup early next week.”

Like the YMCA day camps in Kalamazoo, Jacobs says Camp Henry will divide kids and counselors into small groups, which will have limited interactions with other kids at camp. They will also be rethinking where they hold normal camp activities.

“I think some of the things that we’re hearing that are pretty clear [are]: outdoors is better than indoors, and smaller groups are better than bigger groups,” he explained. “A lot of camps like us are in a fortunate situation where we can plan almost all—if not every—program or activity or meal to take place outdoors, which will certainly, from everything we’ve heard, increase safety and reduce the risks.”

Jacobs says Camp Henry has also added an extra week of training for staff in preparation for the heightened precautions they'll have to take this summer. 

“We keep talking about [how] this summer’s going to feel like we’re operating left-handed,” he said. “Just not quite the same, not quite as comfortable, and it’s just going to take some practice…but certainly, it’s something that we can adapt to.”

While the outlook for sleepaway camps is still unclear, Jacobs is hopeful that Camp Henry will still get to welcome campers this summer. In a time when so many things have been put on pause for kids, he says, camp is more important than ever. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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