Despite precautions, summer camps have failed to keep out the coronavirus

As summer camps debated whether and how to operate during the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Kanakuk Kamps, a prominent network of Christian sports camps in Missouri, announced that its five overnight camps would open to over 20,000 kids starting May 30.

“Our full-time summer staff of 1,600 qualified individuals including 100 registered nurses and 60 volunteer doctors are hired and sitting on ready,” Joe White, who runs the camp with his wife, Debbie-Jo, told families. “We are planning on being open all summer.”

On its website, the camp reassured parents: “We are focused on taking all reasonable measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our Kamps.”

But now even cautious hopes that COVID-19 might be kept outside Kanakuk Kamps’ gates have already been dashed. On Wednesday, parents were notified by email that one of the camps, known as K-2, was shutting down. The Stone County Health Department updated the community on Facebook: 41 campers, counselors and staff members had tested positive for COVID-19; they had come from 10 states and multiple counties in Missouri.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services later updated the count to 49, according to the Springfield News-Leader. By Monday the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that the number had jumped to 76. By Monday afternoon it was 82.

Last week parents got an email from Rebecca Duncan, Kanakuk’s health services director, advising them that their children may have been exposed: “As your Kamper returns home, we recommend that you consider a 14-day self-quarantine for your child and monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.”

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The plan to open or close overnight camps this summer was a wrenching one, for families and camps alike. Parents are increasingly desperate: A recent American Psychological Association survey found that 60 percent of parents “have no idea” how to keep kids engaged this summer. Camps depend on the income of two short months to keep going year after year. Yet as stressful as it was to learn about cancellations or virtual substitutes, camps in session offer new worries — specifically, keeping children safe.

Kanakuk’s COVID-19 experience isn’t an isolated one. Two YMCA camps in Georgia opened and then shuttered after a counselor tested positive for the coronavirus. Eagle Lake Camp in Colorado reported a coronavirus outbreak among the staff members on site prepping for opening season. The camp won’t welcome campers now, as there are at least 12 confirmed cases and 12 more “probable cases,” NBC affiliate KUSA of Denver reported.

In Pennsylvania, Camp Seneca Lake announced that it was pushing back opening day this week and quarantining a group of staff members after a person tested positive during counselor orientation. The camp posted on Instagram that anyone “who steps foot on our campus will be tested for Covid-19” immediately.

Although dozens of camps across the country chose to shut down, others still plan to open, including the Jewish summer camp Camp Modin in Maine, whose truncated summer season begins Thursday. Camp director Howard Salzberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it had received hundreds of applications.

Kingsley Pines Camp, also in Maine, announced that it would open with a single session this summer and require all campers to have been tested within seven days before arrival. It also encouraged families to self-isolate and to avoid social gatherings in the weeks before camp, and it informed them that no transportation to camp would be provided.

But the directors also warned parents of would-be attendees: “Please understand that even with the steps we are taking, we cannot guarantee that COVID-19 will not enter camp, or that your child will not get it. We will require that all parents sign a waiver prior to camp acknowledging this risk. Each family must carefully weigh the risks and benefits of camp, and decide what is right for their children. We strongly discourage any child with a secondary health condition from attending camp.”

Most camps that promised to open safely suggested a similarly ambitious honor network for campers and counselors regarding isolation before camp’s start. A video on Kanakuk’s website said all campers and staff members would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days before the start of their camp terms. Parents were asked to limit their children’s “exposure to non-family members, avoid large crowds and gatherings and avoid unnecessary travel prior to camp.” A health screening card was mailed to campers two weeks before camp, and parents were asked to record their children’s temperatures for seven days before arrival.

Some camps explored using a bubble or pod system, in which campers join counselors in small groups and stay insular within the camps themselves.

“I think that with the increasing number of cases in so many states now, I am more concerned than I was before about the feasibility of summer camp,” Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, said in an interview.

“These things do always come down to individual judgments and decisions that parents have to make,” she said.

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With rules on gathering differing from state to state and some sleep-away camps still operating, the American Camp Association provided a field guide, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered suggestions for safer youth camp operations. While children have been largely, but not entirely, spared the worst known effects of the coronavirus, there is conflicting evidence about how likely children are to spread the virus to adults.

Kanakuk didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Its existing guidance outlined a protocol of “isolate, confirm, respond, and remove” for campers or staff members who are suspected of having COVID-19. The website lists procedures primed to provide a degree of social distancing, enhanced sanitation practices, implementation of daily temperature checks and face coverings for campers.

“One of the more pressing things is we need to have a conversation, if we’re going to do this, about what does it look like if cases occur, because I don’t believe that will be 100 percent safe, or I will say 100 percent infection-free,” said Dr. David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“In some ways, especially the day camp scenario is kind of a dry run for school,” Cennimo said. “And if we’re not able to pull off day camps, I don’t know how we open schools.”

Fear of the situation Kanakuk faces led family-owned and -operated Camp Friendship in Palmyra, Virginia, to fully shut down its overnight summer camp season for the first time in over 50 years.

“Given current circumstances, we couldn’t guarantee that we could keep campers safe,” said Sarah Ackenbom, a director of the camp.

Ackenbom stressed that health and safety are Friendship’s top priorities, even when it comes with financial strain. All of Ackenbom’s revenue comes from summer.

“All summer camps are looking at if you decide to cancel summer camp, this could be closing your business for good,” she said. To drum up some income, Camp Friendship has begun renting out some of its cabins as campgrounds for families.

Much of the conversation around camps’ opening or closing has focused on kids going to high-end camps that cost several thousand dollars per session. But the children at highest risk for lack of summer programming are those in lower income brackets.

Kids Across America, a sister camp to Kanakuk that focuses on children from low-income families, announced in May that its summer programming would be virtual. Bruce Morgan, CEO of Kids Across America, said the decision was financial. Groups and families who would normally send their kids to camp are using the money for food and other vital needs during the pandemic.

Falls Creek Youth Camp in Oklahoma and Inspire Sports Camps in New Jersey, both designed for kids whose families have lower incomes, also went online.

Although there are free summer programming options online, even having access to a device through which one can participate in virtual programming is not a given for families with limited means.

For some families, however, camp is summer, and that means trusting camps to take care of their children.

“I feel like children need to exercise and feel like they need social interaction, like they need to be connected to nature,” Kanakuk alum Abby Stewart of Jacksonville, Florida, said before her kids left for camp.

Cennimo, the Rutgers infectious disease expert, said: “Ultimately, I think we’re going to now live, for the next couple of years, in a world where there will be continual alerts for new cases, contact tracing and periodic either pauses, opening or re-quarantine. And I think that’s going to be the future for all of us, including our children.”

That’s what will happen in Caren Sharpe Herbst’s home in Allen, Texas. Herbst sent her youngest daughter to Kanakuk’s K-2 camp even after she learned that two counselors had tested positive.

“I think they’re taking the best possible measures to keep our kids safe at camp, and I would not send my baby girl if I didn’t feel like they were going to be safe,” Herbst had told NBC News ahead of her daughter’s arrival at camp.

But just about a week later, Herbst was told to come pick up her daughter. The session was ending because of the COVID-19 cluster.

“We’re going to quarantine and go get her tested,” Herbst said by phone as she drove from Texas to Missouri to pick up her daughter.

“I don’t regret my decision to send my daughter,” she said. “I think Kanakuk did as good a job as I probably could have done. … This was the one thing she was looking forward to this summer.”

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