Preparing Our Kids (And Ourselves) For Summer Camp, 2021-Style

Summer camp season is upon us, but with the added worries of the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s on parents’ minds as they make decisions about camp?


Making decisions about the care and well-being of our children during the COVID-19 pandemic has felt like trying to stand up on a roller coaster. With CDC guidelines, local case rates and vaccination options constantly shifting, the choices we made when summer camp registrations opened months ago may no longer feel like the right fit as summer approaches. 

Here are some common concerns, questions, and expectations parents are expressing while solidifying summer camp plans for 2021: 


Fears about safety


Parental fears about COVID-19 seem to be at their lowest point of the pandemic, thanks to vaccine availability for kids 12 and up, a bulk of data showing that there’s low risk to kids under that age and the lowest national case rates since a year ago. In addition, many parents are feeling more comfortable as vaccination rates rise. “We are (as parents) vaccinated, so at least our general risk as a family is lower,” said Eliza Ginn, mother of two. 

That said, unvaccinated children remain unprotected, and some parents express concerns about how camps will handle the lingering threat of COVID-19. One challenge is quickly changing guidelines, including a new camp update released by the CDC on May 28th saying that masks are largely unnecessary outdoors, even for unvaccinated children. 

“The CDC just recently relaxed their guidance around camps, so I want to be mentally prepared since I think there will be some camps that change their masking policies (and other policies),” said Ginn. “Honestly that worries me because existing policies have worked so well.”

Concerns are understandably high among parents of kids who have been fully remote since March 2020, like Jennifer Parker, mom of two. “For  kids like mine who have been home all year, masking, physical distancing and testing are all new and scary. I am hoping camp can provide a gentle and fun re-entry for them, but finding camps that meet COVID criteria we are comfortable with has been quite a challenge.”


Scrambling for spots


One way parents are mitigating risk is by choosing outdoor camps. This is a wise strategy, since risk of transmission outside is very low, accounting for perhaps 0.1% of COVID-19 cases. Ginn noted, “We are doing outside camps (sailing/kayaking), so I feel like that will keep the risk down.”

Stephanie McDonough, founder and “CEO Farmer” of Farm to Table Kids, Inc., a farm education program in Maine, agrees. “Parents were prioritizing connecting with nature before Covid, and this season, the fact that Farm to Table Kids is a 100% outdoor-based farm campus is a real highlight and puts parents at ease to know we are outdoor farm kids all day, all weather, all summer.”

The desire for open air has put pressure on day camps that are exclusively outdoors – and created stress for parents who missed the abnormally tight registration windows for such camps.

“In 2020, we sold out all 300 spots in 12 hours,” McDonough said of her summer camp program. “In 2021, all 300 spots sold out in four hours.”

Even if it feels like no slots remain, camp directors emphasized that there has been movement on waiting lists since pandemic conditions continue to cause ever-changing plans for many families. Therefore, taking a shot at a slot and staying flexible up to the last minute may be key to getting into outdoor camps this year.


Preparation and testing concerns


Camp directors are decreasing risk of COVID-19 transmission and addressing parents’ fears by maintaining a number of precautions, especially for overnight camps. While these precautions are certainly valuable and are recommended by the CDC, they can also create questions and concerns for parents and kids. 

The number one concern at the moment is adhering to the sleep away camps’ guidelines for quarantine before and between sessions,” said Parker, whose oldest child will be heading to three separate weeks of overnight camp after more than a year of remote learning. “Also, the COVID testing requirement, which is causing my kiddo lots of anxiety.”

Many kids and parents think of testing as being “the swab tickling your brain type,” as Ginn put it, based on their experiences with testing early in the pandemic. Thankfully testing has evolved to include saliva tests and shallow nasal swabs, both of which are comfortable and safe for repeated use.


Trying to stay calm for the kids


Even pre-pandemic, sending one’s kids to camp – especially to their first overnight camp – made many parents anxious. The American Psychological Association (APA) encourages parents to take steps to remain calm so children don’t take on parental fears. Some key steps the APA suggests are:

  • Reducing uncertainty as much as possible. For instance, you could email your child’s camp director to find out exactly which type of testing they’ll be conducting, if any. Then you can prepare your child with facts about the testing process and even show kid-friendly videos of it, like this one from Children’s Hospital Colorado
  • Not offering our kids spontaneous reassurances. It may seem counterintuitive, but if we randomly tell our kids that everything will be fine at camp, we imply that something could be a problem. We should instead address our children’s questions when they bring them up and follow their lead by focusing solely on the questions at hand. 
  • Having a plan. It’s unlikely things will go wrong at camp, but knowing what we’d do if something did happen eases anxiety for parents and children alike. For instance, in the case of COVID-19, having a backup plan for pickup and care in case a close contact quarantine occurs can help ease concerns. 

“It’s important to remember what you are facing is normal; feelings of anxiety are expected,” writes Pauline Wallin for the APA. 


Despite it all, parents are eager for change


Regardless of the safety concerns and anxiety about how camps will feel this year, most parents are expressing excitement about the possibilities for the time ahead. And no wonder:  parents – especially mothers – have been bearing an intense burden for more than 14 months, decreasing or eliminating their paid work, wearing many new hats (including the role of in-house teachers), and experiencing the stress of having children at home far more than usual.

McDonough hasn’t yet heard any concerns from parents about her summer camp program. “Parents are mostly grateful for their children to be able to come to farm camp,” she said. “If anything, parents are expressing that they want more adult programming at the farm, and we’ve been adding one-day classes this season to accommodate that population. People want to farm, and we are so here for it!”

While most children across the country returned to school at least part-time by the end of the 2020-2021 academic year, a sizable portion remained home full-time. Even on part-time schedules, parents didn’t get much – if any – break. 

“My kids didn’t start school until April and they’re in school two days on different days,” said Felicity Ryan, mom of two boys, in late May. “I can’t freaking wait for camp.”



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