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YMCA, American Camp Association Release Guide For Opening Summer Camps

Cooking s'mores around a campfire.

In a typical summer, more than 14 million campers and staff attend overnight and day camps in the United States. But summer 2020 will be far from typical. To prepare for that, the nation's largest summer camp associations, the American Camp Association and the YMCA of the USA, have released a "field guide" for how summer and day camps can operate more safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 82-page guide, prepared by a private consulting firm, offers best practices on everything from swimming to arts and crafts. The document is far more detailed than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official guidance for summer camps, which fits on a single page flow chart.

The field guide emphasizes that camps should open only where state and local authorities permit it, and in locations that have met the criteria for "Phase 2" and "Phase 3" reopening as designated by the Trump administration — which generally translates to ample room in hospitals plus more than two weeks' decline in symptoms, cases and the ratio of positive tests.

The camp associations' safety plan starts with screening all campers and staff for symptoms. Camps may ask campers and staff to take their temperatures daily for up to two weeks before arriving, and to self-report COVID-19 symptoms, such as a sore throat or loss of taste or smell. After campers and staff arrive, camps may continue to screen as often as daily, isolating or sending home anyone with symptoms. (The guide links to a summary of the latest scientific evidence indicating low case numbers among children, and the limited role children play in spreading the coronavirus, although a few cases of a serious inflammatory syndrome in children have been worrisome.)

The guide doesn't assume that all campers and staff will have access to coronavirus testing. But if enough tests are available, it suggests overnight camps could consider operating as a single "bubble," admitting only campers and staff who test negative, and "shelter in place" for the duration of the camp session.

Another key concept is "cohorts," or "households." The field guide suggests grouping campers and counselors in as small a group as possible for all daily activities involving close contact. Some state guidelines set this maximum at 10 campers. The idea is not only to limit spread, but also, should a case be identified, to be able to quickly trace that person's contacts.

Many of the document's recommendations would make it much more expensive to operate a camp. (Think: smaller groups, more frequent cleaning, providing enough equipment like life preservers so that campers don't have to share.) Paul McEntire, chief operations officer of the YMCA, tells NPR, "I am aware of some Y camps that have made basically a business decision that it's better to forego this summer, cut expenses way back and be prepared for next year."

On the other hand, Gregg Hunter, president and CEO of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, says some camp directors are determined to open. "They've told me, 'If they say we can open for 10 kids, we will have 10 kids,' because they know kids need camp and they want to provide that service for them."

Many summer camps, including day camps run by the YMCA, are hoping to reopen, even if on a delayed schedule. A partial list includes camps in Arizona, Connecticut, Texas, Montana, Colorado, New York, Vermont. Other camps have cancelled summer programs all together.

With tens of millions of Americans out of work, many families can no longer afford summer camp. And even for those who can, it's unclear whether parents will feel comfortable sending kids to camp. An unscientific poll by Slate found 83% of respondents would not feel comfortable sending their child to sleepaway camp, and 66% said no to day camp.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.