Vaccines to Allow Camps to Return Closer to Normal

At JCC Camps at Medford, summer 2020 fishing specialist Bill Hamby teaches first-grade campers about their catch | Photo by Sara Sideman

For Jewish summer camps in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the wide availability of vaccines represents a chance for a summer that’s closer to “normal” than the summer of 2020 was.

Though camp directors are hardly rushing to drop policies regarding mask-wearing or disinfection, they acknowledged that some of the mental weight of in-person camp was lifted. With their vaccine-eligible staffs on their way to being vaccinated, the possibility of infection or transmission is dramatically reduced, making way for a summer that might just look like summer.

As of May 4, 51% of all Pennsylvania residents and 52% of all New Jersey residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, two of the 10 highest percentages among all states, according to The New York Times. Though herd immunity is still a long way off, rising vaccination rates are good news for everyone.

Fireworks on the Fourth of July at Pinemere Camp in 2019 | Courtesy of Pinemere Camp

“We’re just feeling better about our ability to keep COVID out and keep people healthy,” said Eytan Graubart, executive director of Pinemere Camp in Stroudsburg.

Graubart, who joined Pinemere earlier this year, was initially frustrated that summer camps in Pennsylvania were not permitted to require vaccines for their staff, as per Department of Health guidelines. But that frustration was assuaged; after Graubart reached out to staff earlier this spring to offer them assistance and information about vaccines, he learned that he was preaching to the choir.

As it stands, Pinemere is on track for all of its staff members to be vaccinated by the time camp begins on June 27. In fact, parents of Pinemere campers were offering their help in securing vaccine and testing appointments for those having trouble finding them on their own.

“There’s been a little bit of a moment where we’re coming together,” Graubart said.

Though it’s “still too early to say” exactly how having a fully-vaccinated staff will affect the way that Pinemere will be conducted this summer, Graubart’s hope is that there will eventually be an opportunity to relax some of the more rigid protocols in place for its staff and campers. Maybe staff will be able to spend some of their off-days away from camp.

Campers at Camp Galil in 2019 | Photos by Mark Liflander/Camp Galil

What the reduced risk has given the camp administration is the freedom to think a little more about camp and a little less about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak. While no less vigilant about safety, Graubart and his team are able to put more energy into providing a positive camp experience to children who’ve gone through a difficult period.

“My peace of mind changed,” Graubart said.

At Camp Galil in Ottsville, safety practices like podding, outdoor dining, masking and regular testing will continue unabated this summer. Executive Director David Weiss said the administration has not yet fully determined the effect that a fully-vaccinated staff would have on their plans for this summer.

“Vaccination has really only added an extra layer of protection,” he said. “It has not led us to pull back on any of the plans that we have been making.”

“It’s just one more thing that we can do to help protect our community,” he added.

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said that’s a pretty typical view among Jewish camp directors. Combining the vaccines with the safety structures put in place over the last year-plus — bubble systems, testing and cleaning protocols, etc. — “has given people confidence” that they can deliver a safe, fun summer for their staff and campers, Fingerman said.

“The vaccines sort of put it over the top,” he said.

JCC Camps at Medford, a day camp in Medford, New Jersey, typically serves 1,300 campers over the summer, with around 1,100 on site on any given day. They’re joined by 550 to 600 seasonal staff members — counselors, kitchen workers, lifeguard, specialists and more.

Last summer, just 200 campers attended a modified program without busing, lunch service or instructional swim. Everyone stayed safe, and there were no cases of COVID-19 at the camp, according to Camp Director Sara Sideman, but it was not a typical summer.

With more staff members vaccinated every day, JCC Camps at Medford will welcome campers in numbers closer to that of a typical summer. While safety will remain front of mind, Sideman said, the widespread vaccinations will bring a much-needed reduction to the temperature of the situation.

“The vaccination piece is, more than anything else, our ability to not feel so stressed going into the summer,” she added, “that we can have a much healthier and safer summer, knowing that we are doing everything we can to keep our kids and our staff safe. That’s the biggest piece of it. But it’s not going to change any of our protocols.”

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