From day camps to overnight camps, summer programs have been a staple in many families’ lives. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, kids had to stay close to home, many on their screens, not seeing friends or doing typical activities — and spending lots of time with their parents or siblings. Many camps, such as J-Day Camps and Camp Wise from Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood, decided not to offer in-person programs but hosted virtual camps in 2020.
Abbey Phillips, director of day camps and youth services at Mandel Jewish Community Center, says you can’t replicate everything online.
“We had over 130 virtual participants and we made sure it was meaningful,” Phillips says about the 2020 programing, but she adds being social is what makes camp special. An in-person experience will return for the 2021 season.
Parents should measure the camp by all of its aspects, including what types of camp activities best meet their child’s needs.
“Families know how crucial camp is, and we are seeing families sign up that we haven’t before,” Phillips says. You have to look at your expectations for summer. We know that there are some families who are more interested in (certain specialty) skills or other families’ priority is in the camp experience.”
Many program directors have been preparing for the extra mental health issues that could arise from camp’s return.
“The mental health of children, the mental health of parents, can’t be overlooked,” says Dave Devey, camp director and owner of Falcon Camp in Carrollton. He knows many families experienced the strain of being at home for nearly a year due to the pandemic, restricted on what they can do before and after school.
While general anxieties are typical when it comes to camp — such as leaving home or meeting new people — some campers might be dealing with extra worries.
Devey says his administrators and staff have been training, with an emphasis on giving staff tools and strategies to recognize and deal with emotions and behaviors children may display due to the pandemic.
“We are preparing for some of the situations and how we can help the campers,” he says, adding that while he thinks going to camp is important every year, it’s even more vital this year. “There have been few avenues children can socialize, lay back, relax and enjoy themselves and have fun in an environment that practices social skills, being competitive and encourages them to try new things. They get away from home and electronics, and camp allows them to be themselves.”
It’s just not kids who might have concerns. Parents who are used to having their children at home, in a safe environment, may feel nervous about sending their kids to camp.
“There is a real anxiety about the unknown,” Phillips says.
Many camp directors are reaching out to parents in different ways to provide support.
“It’s not just the physical safety to make sure they are safe at camp, but emotional, and that goes for parents as well,” Phillips says. “Understanding this is a challenging time through consistent, transparent communication.”
In fact, the J-Day Camps have been providing monthly Zoom camp chats for parents to ask questions.
“We have been running these monthly chats to update where we are and we have a lot of questions about safety,” Phillips says.
Devey says there has to be a level of trust involved.
“Part of what we do is set up a network with other camp families,” Devey says. “Parents can call me any time they want if they have questions or are nervous, worried or have a level of anxiety. There is nothing wrong about having a bit of anxiety about camp. You need to have open lines of communication and what steps we are taking with your child. Parents can let us know if there’s something going on at home that would impact their camp experience so we know when he or she arrives we will be one step head of the game and they can have a successful camp stay.”
Due to possible heightened anxiety, he adds, the camp plans to do more than the usual icebreaker and other social skills activities with the cabin groups.
“To create more of these (social) situations in the beginning of each session to settle everyone down,” he says.
“I think during this time we are feeling the effects of the pandemic on our physical and mental health,” Phillips says. “(Camp is) this ray of hope and return to the normalcy we all need. To make memories and have moments to help us feel whole. The pandemic has taken a lot from (the kids). We have a chance to give summer back.”