Dreading virus-era summer

Mari-Jane Williams

THE WASHINGTON POST – When Karen Arroyo packed up her three children to head to Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Junior last summer, the kids were nervous. The camp, at Harriman State Park in Ramapo, New York, was just shy of two weeks long, and Gabrielle, Mikayla and Aiden had never been away from the Bronx that long. But by the time the children came home, they were asking when they could return to the camp with a ropes course, kayaks and rustic cabins dotting a tree-lined lake.

Now that COVID-19 has turned the world on its head, though, they won’t be going back to Camp Junior in August. Fresh Air Fund, which provides free summer camp and host family experiences for children from underserved communities in New York City, has cancelled its usual programmes for the summer. It may switch to online programming such as virtual tours and meetings, or family camps where parents come and everyone maintains social distancing on site, according to Fatima Shama, the executive director.

“We all need it this year,” said Arroyo, 38, a patient-care technician who has been working nights in the ICU and the emergency room at a Bronx hospital, in the thick of the COVID-19 response in the city that has been an epicentre of the United States (US) pandemic.

The kids’ father, Gabriel Gonzalez, is home with them and tries to provide Arroyo space to cope with the stress. But her work has affected her physically and mentally, and it’s not easy to hide that from her children, ages 14, 11 and 10.

“They need it because they’ve been quarantined for so long, and we’ve been pretty strict about it because I’m on the front lines… And I also need some time where I can scream and cry and get all of the emotions out without it affecting them,” she said.

ABOVE & BELOW: This summer would have been Cameron Davis’s fifth and final year at Melwood’s Camp Accomplish in Nanjemoy; and Betsy Roach’s son, Bernie, in the top bunk at summer camp last year. Bernie is scheduled to go to a four-week YMCA camp this summer, and Roach is torn about whether to send him. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Karen Arroyo’s children – Mikayla, Aiden and Gabrielle – on the day they left for Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Junior last summer. They were scheduled to return this summer, but in-person camp is cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic

Approximately 20 million children attend camp in the US each summer, according to the American Camp Association (ACA). Camp fills a need for many families, whether it’s child care – often methodically lined up months in advance – or simply an opportunity to be immersed in the outdoors, kayaking or hiking while sweaty and covered with bug bites, free from technology and parents’ watchful eyes. But in a world where social distancing and extreme cleaning are the new reality, is there a place for things like campfires, group cabins and crowded dining halls?

Tom Rosenberg, the president and chief executive of the ACA, says kids, many of whom are struggling with anxiety, loneliness and boredom, may need a camp experience more this year than ever.

Those experiences may look different: online sessions from home or smaller groups of kids in sleepaway settings and no interaction between groups. Staff may need to stay on-site on days off to minimise exposure. “Not every camp has the capacity to operate in this environment, because every camp has different facilities and capacities,” Rosenberg said. “But we know some camps can, and we want to help them operate in the best possible way.”

To that end, ACA is working with the YMCA and a public-health consulting firm to come up with best practices, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to help camps to determine whether it’s safe to operate, and if so, how to protect kids and staff.

“The child-care issue is so critical for parents in normal situations, but many will have been out of work” and desperately need care as they return to their jobs, said Paul McEntire, chief operating officer of the YMCA, which serves about one million children each summer in sleepaway camps and another two million in day programmes.

As of May 4, he said, only three of the organisation’s 300 sleepaway camps had cancelled programming.

The Girl Scouts have cancelled all sleepaway and day camps. The Boy Scouts are leaving the decision up to individual councils, according to an emailed statement. But camps that do operate will implement precautionary measures and adapt programmes to keep campers safe.

Betsy Roach, 50, lives in Washington with her son Bernie, nine, and has been working from home while she cares for him. But at some point she will need to return to her job in human resources for the World Bank. What then?

Bernie’s Chinese immersion programme through DC public schools has been cancelled, but he is still scheduled to go to a four-week sleepaway programme at YMCA’s Camp Becket in Massachusetts and to a two-week surfing day camp in Ocean Ridge, Florida, while staying with her parents who live nearby. But even if camps are open, is it safe to send Bernie to a sleepaway programme? Or have him fly to stay with her parents, who are in their 80s?

“I feel like I can’t make any decisions,” Roach said, listing the possible outcomes she can see in her head: “I find a camp and he goes and he gets sick,” she said. “Or then there are no camps and we’re still on lockdown, which is also not happy for a 10-year-old to not be able to live beyond the four walls of our home. I don’t know from a work perspective that I can continue to work full-time and be my best and manage a household and him and a puppy who likes to eat things.”

Even if she did feel comfortable sending Bernie to stay with her parents – and that’s a big if – she doesn’t want him to fly alone right now. So she would have to buy a ticket for herself, adding to the cost.

While at Camp Becket last summer, Bernie spiked a high fever. He was in the infirmary and the camp took him by ambulance to a hospital 36 miles away. Roach, in Florida caring for an ailing parent at the time, was beside herself but realized Bernie was in excellent hands. In that context, she feels a bit safer about sleepaway camp.

“If camp is open, under certain conditions, I’m more likely to let him go,” she said. “It’s in the Berkshire Mountains, a small community, and he’ll be with the same people for four weeks. That’s probably the best-case scenario.”

Crystal Savage, 39, a mom of four in Temple Hills, Maryland, had planned to send her son Cameron Davis, who is 17 and has cerebral palsy, to Melwood’s Camp Accomplish, which offers sleepaway and day camps for kids of all abilities, this summer. The sleepaway programme has been canceled, but she is holding out hope the day programmes will be able to go on and that the virus will be under control enough to make it a safe option for him. It’s Cameron’s fifth year at Camp Accomplish, and his last before aging out. He enjoys the activities, time with friends and the break from mom’s watchful eye.

“It’s really bittersweet,” Savage said, knowing this would have been Cameron’s last year at camp. He enjoys being able to make his own decisions, there, Savage said, whether it’s when to take a shower, what to eat or what to wear each day, without input from his mom. He’s also grown close to staff and other campers over the years. “If he’s unable to go… there’s no real goodbye. It’s like it never happened.”

There’s also the question of summer care for Cameron and his three younger sisters. Savage is a counsellor who helps advocate for adults with intellectual disabilities at Melwood, and her husband works for the federal government.

They’ve had enough flexibility with their jobs to tag-team caring for the kids since schools closed. But that flexibility won’t go on forever, and not having day camp this summer could leave them in a bind.

“It might be a cry for help to my mother-in-law and my mom, and us banding together as a village,” she said. “We’re living day-to-day, trying to figure out what we’re going to do each day as the rules keep changing.”

Arroyo doesn’t have the answers yet, either. Fresh Air Fund hasn’t announced what kind of online programming it will offer, and news, guidelines and predictions are changing every day.

No camp is disappointing, she said, particularly after such a challenging spring. But life will go on.

“There’s a lot going on, but we’re a pretty tough family. We’re going to get through it,” Arroyo said. “I’ve been a New Yorker my whole life, and we’ve been through a lot over the years. This too shall pass.”