Camps that stayed open in summer of COVID could offer lessons for schools
"It’s a lesson in persistence and creativity. A lot of creativity."
In Texas, Steve Baskin is doing the unthinkable in a state where COVID-19 cases have soared this summer.
His overnight camp, Camp Champions in Marble Falls, outside of Austin, has been operating since June 6 -- cycling through an estimated 1,000 school-age kids -- with no known cases of novel coronavirus.
Baskin is almost reluctant to talk about his winning streak out of fear that doing so will jinx him.
"I'm like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter," he said.
"If you were to tell me at the beginning of this summer there'd be any camp ... that had a fighting chance of being COVID-free, I would have laughed at you," Baskin later added.
Across the country in southern New Jersey, Andy Pritikin is on a similar winning streak, but with a seemingly riskier proposition -- running a day camp that hosts some 600 children a day, many of whom have parents who work at any of the dozen hospitals in the state, and near Philadelphia.
Liberty Lake Day Camp is operating on its fourth week now. Pritikin credits the campus being almost entirely outdoors on 60 acres of land.
"We have had a lot of scares. We've had a lot of maybes," but no known COVID cases, Pritikin said.
With the nation gripped in a bitter debate over when and how to open the nation's schools, Camp Champions and Liberty Lake Day Camp could offer a glimpse into what techniques might work in a pandemic to help kids socialize and learn -- especially if traditional school isn't feasible in areas with high transmission rates.
The American Camp Association estimates that only a fraction of the 26 million children and teens who typically attend camps were able to go this year – about 6.5 million. Only 18% of overnight camps and 60% of day camps are operating in-person, according to preliminary estimates, and most camps are operating at reduced capacity and haven't been open the full season.
"It's basically a lost summer," said Paul McEntire, chief operating officer of the YMCA of the USA, referring to overnight camps specifically.
Both Baskin and Pritikin point to their camps' strict health protocols, including Baskin's mandated two-week quarantine in advance of accepting campers, and Pritikin's constant sanitization of everything from bathrooms to basketballs.
But they acknowledge that luck probably has something to do with their winning streaks, too.
Several other summer camps -- particularly across the South where transmission rates have been high -- haven't been successful despite taking similar preventative steps. Camps in Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Georgia have all reported large outbreaks.
In Georgia, for example, YMCA Camp High Harbour quickly shut down earlier this month after a single asymptomatic counselor tested positive despite passing a mandatory health screening. According to local media reports, some 85 campers and staff members were infected although the YMCA has not confirmed a final case count.
Still, both Baskin and Pritikin described tactics that could be applied by local school leaders desperate to find ways to reopen this fall, even if partially.
Both camps are run almost entirely outdoors -- Liberty Lake Day Camp uses tented pavilions for dining on its 60-acre campus -- that still rely on detailed cleaning procedures like sanitizing pool railings and continually disinfecting bathrooms. They also group kids into small groups or "cohorts" to limit transmission and enable contact tracing if someone is infected.
The directors also describe an almost fanatical level of communication with parents and a near-constant attempt to convey a sense of community ethos.
Baskin said he calls families during their mandated quarantine to ask how they are socializing or getting exercise -- questions aimed at gauging whether the family poses a risk to the rest of the camp.
He said his message is clear: If you want to travel or host family or neighborhood gatherings, then you can't send your kids to overnight camp, where social distancing and masks aren't always practical.
Also, their staff comprises almost entirely young, healthy college students who aren't too afraid of getting sick -- a luxury school districts don't have.
"I control all the variables," said Baskin, who required his staff to get tested before coming to camp and randomly tested 75 of his high school students this summer when Texas numbers surged.
For Pritikin's day camp, he insists, "It's a lesson in persistence and creativity. A lot of creativity."
Last spring, even when the prospect of summer camps reopening was in doubt, he sunk $5,000 on some 110 gallons of hand gel -- an exorbitant price for a bulk purchase. He later spent another $5,000 on electrostatic sprayers, the kind of heavy-duty sanitation gadgets that look like something out of the movie "Ghostbusters."
When Pritikin finally got the green light to open July 6 and he couldn't find hand-washing stations that could be delivered on time, Pritikin and his crew rigged their own. They poked holes in hoses and strung them horizontally to wooden posts to create a line of waterfalls that kids could use as sinks.
Parents like Paige Wolf said they are grateful. She said she was among the first parents to keep her kids at home in the early days of the outbreak out of personal health concerns. She has since signed up her kids, ages 10 and 7, to spend six weeks at Liberty Lake Day Camp in part because living in downtown Philadelphia meant her kids had no yard or pool to play in this summer.
And now that her school district announced online classes only this fall, they would have been stuck indoors with only screens to keep them company for months at a time.
"I know it's a risk," said Wolf, a book author and communications specialist who works from home. "But it looks like we're going to be living with this for a while. And realistically, I had to do something."
She said she picked Liberty Lake because it was entirely outdoors.
"Weighing a bunch of horrible, scary, anxiety-inducing options, this is the one we're committed to giving it a shot," Wolf said.
Research shows kids are significantly less likely to get seriously ill, although the risk isn't zero and the concern is that they can infect others without ever exhibiting symptoms. And while there is some research that younger children could be less infectious than teens and adults, those findings are typically in countries with lower transmission rates than the U.S.
That means camps like Camp Champion and Liberty Lake Day Camp are experiments still in the works. And other camps that have fewer resources haven't been lucky enough to try.
"The viability of our camps is on the line. ... Most are now deciding they can't operate safely until spring" without more resources, said the YMCA's McEntire.
Pritikin said he isn't sure his brief success could translate to schools, which have an older workforce and oftentimes fewer resources, but he says he believes firmer guidance from the government would be a good start.
The Trump administration has released general recommendations for schools, but has mostly deferred to state governors, who in turn deferred to local school boards. The result has been school boards weighing concerns of angry parents and teachers who can't agree on what is safe.
"Nobody wants to stick their neck out," Pritikin said about reopening services for kids. "And it's a vacuum of leadership."