2020 was a disastrous year for summer camp. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools, day care centers, and numerous small businesses. Parents were not only at their wit’s end trying to find childcare and facilitate at-home learning, they also desperately wanted positive social experiences for their children. Even during the worst part of the pandemic’s first wave in mid-April, more than two-thirds of past camper parents said they would send their children to camp that summer, if possible (read more).
Unfortunately, a large majority of camps were forced to close. Millions of campers and thousands of staff missed out on summer camp. Considering just Christian camps affiliated with Mainline denominations, three-quarters were forced to cancel their regular summer programs. (It was even worse in Canada, with over 90% canceling.) Half of all year-round camp staff were furloughed, laid off, or took a salary cut. More than 350,000 campers missed out on camp at these Mainline camps, and they lost a combined total of more than $260 million in revenue from canceled camps and retreats (these findings are from a recent survey of camp directors affiliated with Outdoor Ministries Connection).
But camp will be back in 2021.
There is still so much uncertainty about the pandemic, and things feel pretty desperate here at the peak of the second wave. Some directors have already made the incredibly difficult decision to cancel summer camp or drastically cut programs. But I remain optimistic for 5 key reasons:
- Vaccines: It seems like every time I turn on the news, they are talking about logistical challenges, slow vaccine roll-out, and new virus strains. Relax, and look at the numbers. The two most widely available vaccines are more than 90% effective against the virus, and they remain effect against new strains. Vaccination has been ramping up, and the United States is now administering around 1.5 million doses every day. Even if we pessimistically predict that the rate will not increase (though it almost certainly will), simple math tells us that more than 100 million Americans will be fully vaccinated (2 doses) by June 1, with another 15-20 million having the first dose. That is half of the adult population. We will not be at herd immunity, but widespread vaccination will contribute to a sharp decrease in infections. With vaccination ramping up and new vaccines coming to market, it is plausible we will reach herd immunity by the end of the summer or early fall.
- Infections going down: New COVID-19 infections have been steadily declining for over two weeks (check out the CDC numbers). With the numbers of vaccinations increasing, infections will continue to decline. New highly infectious variants may slow the decline, but they will not stop it. We will also see seasonal effects. Just like last year, there will be fewer infections during the summer months because of the warmer, more humid weather and more time spent outdoors.
- Camp staff are essential workers: The CDC has included summer camp staff in its list of essential workers (check it out!). This means that they will be eligible to receive the vaccine in most states in the coming weeks. According to new ACA data, the vast majority of COVID-19 cases related to camps in 2020 were among staff members. Vaccinating a large percentage of summer staff will help keep camps even safer than they already are.
- Proven safety record: Speaking of safety, camps are really good at this! Safety continues to be the top priority of summer camps, and they have used this strength to mitigate risks. Even among camps that operated in 2020, there were very few confirmed cases of COVID-19. Overnight camps had far fewer cases than day camps (ACA). Among Mainline Christian overnight camps, more than 90% operated COVID-free in 2020, and most of those that had confirmed cases had 3 or fewer. Again, most of these were among camp staff. In 2020, very little was known about COVID-19. Now, there is a ton of research about how to effectively mitigate risk of exposure. With effective safety measures, the risk of transmission is so low among children that experts are forcefully advocating for a return to in-person school this winter. Camps already proved in 2020 that they could implement these measures.
- People need camp: As a parent of two teenage boys, I thank the Living Lord that there will be camp this summer. We need it more than ever! Some children have been away from school since the middle of March. Others, like my children, have experienced the uncertainty of on-again, off-again in-person learning combined with a hybrid of virtual school. My kids have spent more time on electronic devices in the past ten months than at any other time in their lives. They seldom interact with their friends, except online. Parents across the country are desperate for camp, and they will sign up their children. As creative as some camps were in 2020 with things like virtual camp, there is simply no substitute for in-person overnight camp.
Not every camp will be able to open this summer. Each has a context to consider and unique campers to protect, particularly those that serve campers with special needs. However, I fully expect that over three-quarters of camps will be open this summer. There will be masks at certain times. Registration and camper drop-off will look different. There will probably not be large group meals in the dining hall (something this advocate for decentralized camping LOVES!). But there will be games and campfires. Young people will conquer a fear, learn a new skill, meet new friends, and remember the joy of social interaction. They will spend time away from screened technology. They will learn about Jesus.
Parents will sit back in contended bliss, not quite wanting the time to end, yet excited to hear the wacky stories and see smiles like they have not seen in over a year.