Summer camp looked different in 2020. For hundreds of camps across the country, it looked empty and quiet. Many were forced to make the difficult decision of cancelling their in-person programs. Millions of young people missed out on camp this summer, part of a broader national tragedy that will have ongoing impacts across society. Thousands of summer staff members were deprived not only of meaningful work but also potentially life-altering experiences. We cannot go back or recover what was lost.

Even with promising reports of a vaccine on the horizon, a specter lies over the summer of 2021. Will it be safe to return to camp? Even if camps open, will parents send their children? Many camps rely on a high percentage of returning campers to fill the bunks. With most camps cancelling programs in 2020, will potential campers look to other summer options or choose an online format to which they have become so accustomed?

We need summer camp, now more than ever.

Summer camp has always carried more than a hint of nostalgia. Camp represents a return to some remembered past, real or imagined, when life was happier or simpler. Camp is a bastion of simplicity, a breakwater against the unrelenting storms of society. In the early years of summer camp, this meant eschewing the industrialized world and enacting a romanticized vision of frontier life. It also meant (and continues to mean) providing safe spaces for children to run, play, worship, build new friendships, and simply enjoy being children. In the time of COVID-19, some of the simplest joys of life have been taken away or severely curtailed. People long for a return. They long for an escape from the nightmare. Especially among families with young children, the losses seem unending and irreplaceable: school, prom, music opportunities, sports, family vacations. Camps cannot solve the crisis, but they can provide an escape and a much-needed release of tension and monotony. 

The summer of 2020 offers some prime examples. While most camps closed, either by reasoned choice or by government mandate, some remained open. Eight of these camps, stretching from New Hampshire to Montana, participated in a research project in 2020. We surveyed more than 500 camper parents in the weeks following the camp experience to get parent impressions. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Parents were ecstatic about the availability of camp to their children. They described in great detail the challenges and disappointments of 2020, as one opportunity after another was cancelled. The simple fact that camp was open was a God-send to these parents.

As one parent said, “Camp was positive, reaffirming, and a calm port in the COVID-19 storm.”

The most prevalent theme from the survey was TRUST. While only half of parents indicated they were satisfied with their local government response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a paltry 22% were satisfied with the national response, more than 90% were satisfied with the camp’s response. They expressed confidence that the camp would keep their children safe. Safety is what camps do. Their highest priority, confirmed in numerous camp director surveys and interviews, is camper safety. The parents trusted their camps, and the camp staff took this honor extra seriously in 2020. Each camp enacted numerous safeguards, adjusted camper drop-off/pick-up, and revised their programs to accommodate social distancing.

Not a single one of these camps had a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Of course, this was not the case at every camp that operated in 2020, and the most notorious made the national news. However, the vast majority of camps across the country that operated in 2020 had COVID-free summers, in spite of the mid-summer spike in cases across the U.S. The ones with high numbers of confirmed cases flaunted federal guidelines or followed them only partially. The lesson is clear: summer camps can operate safely, provided adequate safety measures are taken.

One worry was that, with all the restrictions and programmatic changes, it would not feel like camp. This worry proved baseless. In fact, parents rated the 2020 camp experience higher than any previous summer that we have conducted the survey (since 2016). When returning camper parents were asked to compare the experience to previous summers, a large number said it was better in terms of the social interaction, the overall experience, and even the camp activities. It was relational, faith-centered, unplugged from home, participatory, and a safe space. It was still camp.

There is a deep yearning for normalcy, a recovery of childhood that feels stolen, and a return to some nostalgic past, whether real or imagined. The COVID-19 pandemic is sure to have many long-lasting impacts. We are all coming to terms with the reality that there is no going back or recovering what we lost. There is only moving forward. As we do so, the camp experience has something incredibly valuable to offer.

Those that were able to operate in 2020 saw the tremendous gratitude of families and clear impacts of the experience on participants. For all those that were unable to safely open last summer, it is time to look forward to 2021. Campers and their parents are ready to come back, and they trust you to keep them safe.

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