Directors from Willoway Day Camp, JCC Day Camps, Camp Tamarack and more discuss what summer will look like with kids at camps.
After COVID forced the closure of most camps last year, local camp directors say they are ready and excited to welcome back campers next month and give kids a bit of normalcy and a lot of fun this summer.
“Even with all the changes, the goal is to make camp look like it did pre-COVID, meaning there will be all the activities campers would expect such as arts and crafts, sports and swimming but with guidelines set by the state and CDC,” says Randy Comensky, senior managing director of the JCC Day Camps.
Camp Maas Director Carly Weinstock doesn’t think kids will notice much of a difference from previous summers. “Once they’re there and doing programs, it’s going to feel like camp. They’re still going to participate in the typical camp activities, but, for the first 10 days, there won’t be any all-camp programs.”
At Tamarack, meals will be served in shifts, according to Weinstock, and although campers will stay with their villages, siblings will have time to see each other, masked and socially distanced.
Leaving for camp will also look different this year. Instead of excited families and campers gathering in a crowded parking lot filled with camp spirit, upbeat music and a string of green buses waiting to take campers to Ortonville, parents will have to drop their children off at camp.
Most camps also are decreasing the number of participants. Tamarack will operate Camp Maas at reduced capacity, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent capacity. However, because of the fluidity involved in addressing all things related to COVID, those numbers could be modified if external guidelines change. Camp directors said this is true of all COVID-related protocols.
The JCC Day Camps plans to enroll 25 percent fewer campers this year. Although it has the outdoor space for more, the camp wants to safely accommodate participants indoors during inclement weather.
Keeping Kids Safe
In terms of what else camps are doing differently to operate during a pandemic, day camps will conduct daily health screenings, keep campers in pods, eliminate out-of-camp trips, require masks in certain situations and perform additional sanitizing. Overnight camps will do the same, plus campers and staff are being asked to quarantine before camp and undergo COVID testing before and during camp. And, while the staff will continue to have to time off, they will have to stay onsite.
“Since we closed camp last year on May 4, we’ve been working on opening for the summer of 2021. We began meeting very early on with our medical team and started talking about our dreams. What could we open? What would it look like?” says Lee Trepeck, CEO of Tamarack Camps.
Willoway Day Camp was one of the few camps to open last summer and successfully offered eight weeks of camp, according to Lorraine Fisher, who co-owns Willoway with her husband, Arnie.
Fisher attributes the success to several factors, including parental compliance. Campers received daily health screening forms, had temperature checks at home and before boarding the buses, and the camp followed CDC and state guidelines. Fisher says there won’t be any changes from how camp operated last year unless new guidelines come out. While the camp often has a waiting list, this is the first year that the list started as early as April.
At Tamarack, there is a waiting list for second session at Camp Maas, and first session is practically filled. Camp Kennedy is filled, and Camp Olmstead has limited space, according to Trepeck.
At the JCC Day Camps, the number of newly enrolled campers is up from 2019. Comensky attributes the increase to targeted marketing strategies, but he said that some returning families are hesitant to enroll. Instead, they are taking a wait-and-see approach, with decisions being based on any new government guidelines and the number of COVID cases. Comensky also acknowledged that some are reluctant to register based on the misconception that the JCC building closure, announced last year, will affect the camp.
“Although the building is not open like it was in the past, we continue to have a ton of programming going on. The JCC is still thriving in programming, including camp,” says Comensky, adding that the camp also has more financial aid available because last year’s scholarship money went unused.
Based on Trepeck’s conversations with parents, he found that even for those who are nervous about sending their children to camp, that nervousness is balanced by an eagerness to have their kids back at camp.
“The campers, the staff, our community, everyone’s had such a tough year, and kids need camp,” Weinstock says. “They need to come. They need to be kids. They need to play outside and be with other kids and be off their electronics and just be able to enjoy themselves.”
Parents Share Their Thoughts on Camp
Jodi Mills says she would send her two teens to overnight camp in a heartbeat, but their summer plans are uncertain right now. The Mills attend Camp George in Ontario, Canada, and the province was on lockdown until at least May 19. Even when restrictions are lifted, it’s questionable whether camps in Ontario will be allowed to open. And, if they can, most likely, Americans will have to quarantine in Canada for two weeks before starting camp.
Jacob Mills hopes to celebrate his 16th birthday at Camp George. Because of his age, this would be his eighth and final summer. His sister Becca, 13, is hoping to attend Camp George for the seventh time.
“I honestly don’t care about how high the numbers are in Ontario. I am not worried. I trust the camp staff to do the right thing and keep everyone healthy,” says Jodi Mills of West Bloomfield.
If he can’t go to camp, Jacob plans to work, play baseball and hang out with friends. Becca, on the other hand, doesn’t know what she will do.
“Being a single parent in a pandemic is rough,” Mills says. “While I need a break, it’s equally important for them to have one, too. Camp is such a good place for kids to grow as individuals, be responsible, create bonds and have new experiences.
“I keep counting the losses in my head. I’m grateful that we’re healthy, but they only get one childhood, and when the losses keep piling up, it’s heavy. I kept thinking camp really has to happen, especially after Becca’s eighth-grade trip to Israel got canceled.”
Now more than ever, Rachel Chynoweth, Becca’s friend, and classmate, is looking forward to spending the second half of her summer at Camp Tamarack, which did not open last year due to the pandemic. Her mom, Gail Chynoweth, a registered nurse and member of Tamarack’s medical committee, says despite COVID, she is comfortable sending her daughter to camp.
“Is the risk of COVID in the back of my mind? Sure it is; but I know they have a really good plan for the summer,” Chynoweth says. “I’m confident in the precautions they are putting in place, which are similar to what Hillel has been doing this year.”
Not So Fast
Not all parents are ready to send their children to camp. Doron Vergun, a Farmington Hills mom, says her son won’t attend day camp as planned because of his age. He is 6, and she doesn’t trust his ability to always correctly wear a mask, stay socially distant or adequately wash his hands. She also has concerns about what the counselors will do outside of camp to protect themselves from COVID.
Vergun homeschools her kindergartner and her 3-year-old and has been since before COVID. She believes that because her children are used to being home, it helps ease some of the disappointment over not going to camp and, she says, they know that being at home is OK.
As an alternative to camp, she is trying to find activities such as tennis or karate where it’s easier for participants to socially distance.
“If you don’t have to do it, why chance it,” Vergun says. “I work part-time from home, so we don’t need camp, but I understand everyone has a different situation. For some, camp is necessary because parents work or they need it for their child’s mental or physical well-being.”