Although the second summer of the pandemic is approaching, Rabbi Joel Seltzer knows this camp season will be different from the last.
“Last year was entirely occupied by the question of, ‘Can we have camp safely?’ Whereas this year, the entire year has not been a question of can, but how,” the executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos said.
Last year, Ramah was one of many sleepaway camps in Pennsylvania that canceled its season due to the health risks of COVID-19. Now, updated facilities and stringent safety protocols are helping these organizations plan to welcome kids back.
“We know our staff and our campers are really excited about going back to camp,” said Alan Silverman, camp director at Camp Moshava in Honesdale. “It was very disappointing for us last summer when we were not able to open, and so there really is tremendous excitement from all involved.”
Joshua Sternburg, director of finance and operation at Camp Havaya in South Sterling, said the main tools at camps’ disposal for ensuring a fun, safe summer experience are non-pharmaceutical interventions, or NPIs. These include masking, distancing, cleaning regiments, hand washing and creating small pods of campers.
Testing is also a key component of reopening.
At Ramah, campers will be encouraged to get tested 10 days before they arrive. They will be tested on arrival to closely monitor the potential for any outbreaks. Camp Nock-A-Mixon in Kintnersville plans to test each camper at least four times during their stay. Havaya, Moshava and Camp Harlam in Kunkletown have similar strategies in place.
For indoor spaces like bunks, infirmaries and dining halls, camps are using a combination of new ventilation equipment, outdoor tents and limited capacity to ensure adequate distancing. Havaya is covering its dining hall porch so campers can eat outside, Harlam is splitting meal sessions and Ramah is moving dining under large outdoor tent pavilions.
One aspect of camp that will not return this year is trips beyond the campgrounds and hosting visitors. Ramah, Havaya, Nock-A-Mixon, Moshava and Harlam have no intention of moving campers off-site to the usual amusement parks or naturescapes during the season. Silverman said Moshava also has no plans to welcome guests for Shabbat, which would happen in a normal season.
“Once campers arrive, we will not be letting anyone, so to speak, in or out, unless it’s an emergency or some kind of very special thing,” he said. Staff will also be expected to remain on-site on their days off.
If these safety measures hold, camp leaders believe that kids will be able to have relative freedom of movement and partake in the activities they know and love, from outdoor sports to arts and crafts.
“We’re not really eliminating any activities,” Sternburg said. “It’s going to be limited to only, you know, the groups with their pods, but other than that we’re really trying to offer most or all of the programming that we normally would.”
Campers will be able to socialize with peers, a precious opportunity for many after a year of remote learning and isolating with family.
“Something that’s probably on everybody’s mind is just how hungry everybody seems to be for camp,” said Gary Glaser, director of Camp Nock-A-Mixon. Camp was already a beloved experience, and now it offers an escape from the relentless negative news kids may be exposed to elsewhere.
“Camp might be the first time where you feel back to normal,” he added.
Camp leaders are also aware that many of their campers are experiencing increased stress and anxiety due to the difficulties of the past year.
“This is an area in which Harlam has already invested significant resources,” said Lisa David, director of Camp Harlam. “We have a full camper care team; those are social workers, educators, mental health professionals who are there to work with our families, and then also share information with our staff and train our staff to work directly with kids and to be there as needed to manage any issues that pop up.”
Glaser said the consistency of life at Nock-A-Mixon is comforting to children in the face of uncertainty.
“A camper who’s nervous can ask, ‘What’s going on tomorrow?’ And you know we have an answer,” he said.
David said Harlam is also distributing a brit kehillah, or community covenant, to families that explain the rules of returning to camp this summer and emphasize the Jewish values of caring for each other. She said the past year has made kids aware of the need for masks and distancing, and doesn’t expect to need a punitive approach for campers breaking the rules.
For day camps that did not close last summer, the upcoming season is an opportunity to implement the lessons they learned last year. Sara Sideman, camp director of JCC Camps at Medford in New Jersey, said the organization plans to run full programming, transportation and meal service this year with safety protocols in place.
Last summer, JCC ran a modified program with 200 campers rather than the usual 1,300. Campers were separated into cohorts, or small numbers of kids similar to pods. Rather than switching classes throughout the day, cohorts did activities together to minimize exposure. Face masks were required any time someone goes indoors or cohorts interact with each other.
Meals were individually wrapped rather than served family-style and eaten outdoors instead of in the dining hall. Since the camp has little indoor space, kids played under open-air pavilions on rainy days.
All of these safety measures will be implemented again this year for more children. Sideman doesn’t expect to be back to full capacity this year, but the numbers will be closer to a standard season.
“We’re really proud to be able to provide respite for kids in such a crazy time and be able to provide the adequate support that our campers need to ensure that they’re feeling happy and safe,” she said.