COVID-19 is stirring up debate about the revered annual tradition of summer camp.
Arizona families are deeply divided about sending their kids to camp this summer ‐ whether or not our state reopens in May, according to a recent Raising Arizona Kids poll.
The survey results reflect the uncertainty around COVID-19 that has families anxious about what usually would be routine decisions. Responses to our “Pandemic Parenting” poll were evenly divided, with about one-third (33%) of respondents voting in favor of sending their kids camp, another one-third (34%) vowing to keep their kids home, and an undecided group (33%) waiting to see how the situation unfolds.
The survey question of “to send or not to send” Arizona kids to camp also provoked highly polarizing, even heated responses from more than 300 parents who took the poll, which was deployed Wednesday in our email newsletter, and from more than 2,200 parents who engaged in a Facebook post about the same question.
Here are two examples of the dramatic range of opinions we heard:
“Yes, we need to resume normal activities,” said Amanda Wray of Fountain Hills, who hopes her kids can go to The Scottsdale School camp. “Arizona is not a hotbed for infection, and healthy children within healthy households should be allowed to get back to socializing. It should be voluntary for camps to open as they see fit with extra sanitization and hygiene protocols.”
“Absolutely not,” said Alice Daer of Tempe. “I’m not sure that people understand that all it takes is being near ONE asymptomatic person with the virus. One kid brings it [COVID-19] to camp and — boom! — we’re all infected. Until there is widespread testing or a vaccine, we’re not going anywhere.”
Reasons for YES to summer camp
Of those who said they would send their kids to camp, reasons ranged from kids’ needs for social interaction to working parents’ needs for daytime child care.
Julie Haller of Gilbert is staying the course for her 11-year-old daughter, Caroline, who will return to Queen Creek Performing Arts Center’s summer theater camp. Caroline attended the center’s recent spring break camp, during which her mother witnessed precautionary measures firsthand. She is confident that her daughter will be safe and that the benefits of summer camp outweigh the risks. “The mental health toll that (canceling camp) would take on my child is too great. She needs structure and social interaction,” Haller said.
Some parents say they are comfortable with camps that are located in what is perceived as safer, lower-risk settings. Sabrina Chavez of Phoenix intends to send her teenage son to Camp Yavapines in Prescott for a week. She noted the rural location with secluded cabins. The camp also announced a reduction in the number of campers in each cabin this year. “We need to get back to some normalcy, and a lot of kids haven’t left the house in over a month,” she said.
For others, keeping their camp tradition is a stand against the fear brought by COVID-19. Nicole Johnson of Chandler is looking forward to having her 7-year-old son attend the D-backs Baseball Academy. She has been encouraged by the impact of the fight against COVID-19 to date. “I’m staying positive and not going to live my life in panic. I want my children to feel safe and not be full of anxiety. It’s not healthy on so many levels for them to be home for essentially four to five months before school starts,” she said.
Several working parents said the need for child care over the summer factored into their camp decision. “I have to go back to work,” said Jennifer Wendy, a mother of two children who would attend the Gilbert School District’s VIK Summer Program. “I have confidence in the Gilbert Schools to take proper precautions for all children and staff. We need to try to get back into a routine and move on.”
Other working parents noted that, if they are not going to be working from home, they too will need a place for their children during summer break. For some, it’s either camp or day care.
Reasons for NO to summer camp
Parents who firmly opposed sending their kids to camp pointed to health risks and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. Until there are valid testing and treatment efforts in place, they foresee continued outbreaks as inevitable. They view self-isolation and quarantine as imperative for their families.
Michelle Faulkner, whose son suffers from asthma and allergies, feels more time and information is needed before kids regroup so closely. “IMHO it is way too soon. There’s still so much unknown. So, until my gut says it’s safe to go back in the water, this Mama Bear is keeping her 9-year-old cub home where it’s safest,” she said.
Mary Fiore, a Phoenix mother of two elementary school-age students, agrees. She views the pandemic as beyond camp officials’ control. “There’s no way kids can social distance in a camp setting. Even if they are sanitizing twice as much, the idea of all those kids in a closed-in space…is just not appealing to me,” she said.
The safety risk also is too high for Lauren Packer, a Chandler mother of four. “I don’t see how it’s possible for camps to maintain the necessary health standards at this point,” she said, adding that the camps she had booked canceled their sessions.
And plenty of “just don’t knows”
Still other parents are delaying their decision based on how Arizona’s COVID-19 situation plays out.
Amy Feltus, a Scottsdale mom of three children, sums it up well for this group: “Decisions feel premature right now. It will depend on what happens between now and the summer.”
Julie Fornaro’s son is waiting for the verdict for his summer. For the last six years, he has gone to the Friendly Pines camp in Prescott. But this year his mother will make the call much closer to the camp’s July 4 start date. “We are on the fence about sending him. We want to wait and see the state of the pandemic and restrictions before committing,” she said.
She said her reservations are about the situation, not about the safety of the camp, whose administrators she knows and trusts. The camp would require medical exams for every camper within a week of the program’s start.
Fornaro’s concerns echo those of others who are undecided. They feel that camp operators would do their utmost to make conditions as safe as possible. But they worry about factors beyond anyone’s control with the unpredictability of COVID-19.
If the severity subsides, some parents said they might reconsider summer camp especially those that they perceive as lower risk. Among those mentioned are programs in outside settings, with smaller numbers and with less than full-time schedules. Georgette Stathis, a Tucson mother of three, said she’d only consider “an outdoor soccer or swim camp with all safety and health protocols. Or, if inside, something else where there’s only a few kids. Otherwise – no, not willing to risk it until more is known.”
Parents who won’t touch summer camp this year are starting to think about alternatives for their kids. Worst case, one mom said, she’ll access the wealth of kids’ programming on the internet each day. Parents also mentioned filling up the summer with lots of outdoor activities – swimming, boating, hiking and road trips — as well as teleconferences with friends and family, online activities and video and gaming time.
Mimi Love of Phoenix already has a game plan for her twins’ camp-free summer: “We have a goal to hike every trail in Maricopa County and leave behind painted rocks that have inspirational words or images on them.” In between outings, they have a house full of arts and crafts to do and also will enjoy cooking together.
The pandemic has brought tough choices for parents this summer. They’re having to weigh safety issues against their kids’ emotional well being and, in some cases, their own needs for child care.
Mawa Keita of Phoenix is a single working mother whose situation captures the dilemma. It would help her to have her kids engaged at camp during work hours this summer. But she’s erring on the side of caution. “Balancing a full-time job and managing children has been extremely stressful. On the other hand, my son has asthma so it’s best that we stay home,” she said.
NEXT WEEK: Perspectives from summer camp directors