How Central Texas summer camps navigate COVID-19 risks in unvaccinated kids

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Summer camps are a welcomed reprieve for kids looking to get outdoors, try out a new hobby or make new friends in normal years. In the era of COVID-19, they’ve become a desired change of pace from a 15-month disruption that pivoted to a less social, more virtual world.

But for children under age 12 that are ineligible for a vaccine, the balancing act of ensuring kids’ safety while also giving them an engaging program rests largely on camp directors’ shoulders.

“You know, we’re seeing a small number of camps have outbreaks,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association. “But in general, the vast majority of camps seem to be having successful summers in terms of being able to operate.”

A 2020 survey conducted by the ACA found 74 camps reported at least one COVID-19 case last summer out of the 486 camps that responded.

Rosenberg said a multi-layered safety approach is key in keeping campers, counselors, staff and extended families safe. Relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations, the following measures are still encouraged:

  • Wearing well-fitted masks indoors; outdoors mask use is recommended in areas of higher transmissions, such as crowded outdoor environments
  • Promoting vaccinations to eligible staff, campers and family members
  • Frequent handwashing, increased sanitation protocols
  • Avoiding crowded indoor activities
  • Staying home if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
  • Screening testing

The City of Austin’s summer camps offer both in-person and virtual options this year but have limited the capacity of its in-person camps. The increased safety emphasis includes daily health screenings and temperature checks, as well as assigning children to pod groups.

“We’ve modified a lot of our activities and programs to be more safety conscious, including a larger time spent outdoors,” said Davin Bjornaas, recreation program director for the City of Austin. “Which thankfully, we’ve had sort of a mild summer this year by Austin standards, so that’s been very helpful.”

“We understand how important it is for these youths to socialize with their peers, to play and to have fun after a year of, you know, maybe not getting to do that as much.”

davin bjornaas, recreation program director, city of austin

Kurt Podeszwa serves as camp director of Camp For All, a summer camp for children with disabilities located in Washington County. He stressed the importance of covering multiple bases when it comes to safety measures.

Camp For All opted not to operate last summer due to the pandemic. The biggest difference for industry safety measures now versus then is the additional public knowledge surrounding what the coronavirus is and ways it can now be treated and prevented.

“We know more about COVID. We know more about how to be safe. There are more people vaccinated,” he said. “And so I think it’s just that we know more, and we can focus our protocols on what we know to be effective.”

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are multifaceted in nature, said Steve Baskin, co-executive director of Camp Champions. Fifteen months of isolation, increased screen time and a lack of social interaction have impacted both adults and children physically, mentally and emotionally.

Within the undercurrent of long-term coronavirus impacts to be seen is how the pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles, particularly in developing children and teenagers, he said.

Children and teenagers were already living in a world inundated by excess screen time, social media use and each’s impact on face-to-face socialization. Being able to unplug for a week and spend time outdoors is not just a novelty, but a necessity, Baskin said.

“[COVID-19] is a disease that can affect their mental health and their social interaction,” he said. “And I think camp is a uniquely wonderful place to deal with that.”

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