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Many Day Camps Are Choosing To Reopen, But Should Your Child Attend?


It is fair to say that families have been dealing with a lot right now. For the past three months, they've struggled through the whole homeschool distance learning situation. Parents have been helping kids work through the social isolation created by the coronavirus pandemic. And for the past couple of weeks, they've been working through difficult conversations with their kids about race and injustice. And now summer is upon us. It's usually a time when we can all catch our breath, get out of routines, find joy, connect our kids with their friends, but summer's going to look a lot different for the children of working parents, children who usually spend their summer at day camps.


SYDNEY: All right, everyone, today's the day. If all goes as planned, we're going to sneak into the office at Camp Widjiwagan and get the intel we need. What's going to happen to summer camp?

MARTIN: This is a video from Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville, Tenn. In it, Camp Director Jeff Merhige explains how things are going to change.


JEFF MERHIGE: We're looking at making it cleaner. We're looking at how we sanitize. We're looking at how our groups will interact with one another. Camp Clean is going to be super clean.

MARTIN: But the most important thing here is that Camp Widjiwagan is going to open. Merhige told me they are following state and local guidance, taking all necessary precautions and moving ahead. That is not the case everywhere around the country. Many camps have decided to close altogether, and some are just in a holding pattern as they count COVID cases in their state and try to figure out how to keep kids safe. They're also pushing up against a lot of demand from families because, we should just point out here, we're not talking about sleepaway camps that are more like a weeklong vacation. These are day camps that double as critical child care for working parents. I talked with Dr. Zeke Emanuel about this. He's a bioethicist and vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania. In a recent op-ed for The Atlantic, Dr. Emanuel said many working parents can't get back to full productivity without camp, and kids desperately need the break.

EZEKIEL EMANUEL: We separated children from their peers. We restricted their activities out of doors, and we're about to face summer with kids totally out of school, isolated from their friends. This is not a good recipe for children. We've also upset the parents' lives in terms of being able to focus on work. And I think having some distance during the day reestablishes a good relationship with people.

MARTIN: Are you saying that the harm being done to them because of social distancing and isolation outweighs the risks of contracting the virus?

EMANUEL: I think that there is a big harm. Almost all the data talks about the importance of socialization, interacting with other kids, negotiating, playing, setting rules. Those are important things for child development. On the risk side, transmission among kids is relatively low. We know that their harms are lower than adults. They're not zero and I don't want anyone to say, oh, there's no problem with kids. There are problems with kids, but they're relatively low, certainly relative compared to other risks that kids have of unintentional injury. And I think given that relative lowness, it's worth taking some of the risks for some children for the benefits for tens of millions of children.

MARTIN: So many Americans have made real sacrifices to limit their exposure to other people over the last few months. Sending your kid to summer camp, though, would exponentially increase a family's exposure to the virus, wouldn't it?

EMANUEL: Yes, it is an increase. I don't think it's exponential. I think it's inevitable. Children are going to get COVID-19 if we open summer camp - inevitable. For some parents, they will perceive the risks to be too high. But for the vast majority, the risks are acceptable given the other risks that children live with. Remember, a child's life is not risk free, and it shouldn't be risk free. So I think that's the balance.

MARTIN: But combating a global pandemic and protecting your kid from a virus is different than, you know...

EMANUEL: Dying in a car accident, really? I'm not so sure.

MARTIN: Well, falling out of a canoe or something that would transpire at summer camp.

EMANUEL: Yeah, falling out of a canoe. Learning to cooperate around wearing face masks, washing hands, learning to deal with adversity is very important for children.

MARTIN: What kind of guidance have camps or state officials had from the federal government about how they should be weighing these decisions?

EMANUEL: Disappointing is the answer to that. I think the guidance coming out of the CDC has been less than great. It also would help if we had much more available and easy-to-use testing in this country.

MARTIN: But do you think that's a prerequisite for camps to be able to test each and every camper before the start of a day?

EMANUEL: I would say that it would be ideal, and it would be very good. I don't think in and of itself it's a go/no-go element. It's not easy. I didn't say it was easy, and I think in our article we say there are logistical and financial considerations. But is it a high priority for the country as a whole to do this for our children who need structure in their summertime?

MARTIN: Dr. Zeke Emanuel, we appreciate your time. Thank you.

EMANUEL: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: But in the end, it really is all up to parents because let's say the camp you send your kids to in the summer is going to open. Well, then what? Then it's on you to decide if the benefit outweighs the potential cost.

JANELL CINQUINI: I'm kind of nervous. We help take care of my mom, who lives about five minutes from here, and she's 79. And so I get nervous about exposing us to what's out there.

MARTIN: This is Janell Cinquini (ph) from Aurora, Ore. She has two boys, ages 8 and 6.

CINQUINI: It's very hard, especially on the youngest. Every day, he says I want to go somewhere (laughter), you know, the park or, you know, he misses - you know, I realized after we were home two or three weeks that he didn't even really understand why we were home, you know, and what was going on. And so he was just kind of taking pieces from what we said, and he believed coronavirus was a person that could come into our house. And so that was kind of a painful mom moment.

MARTIN: Her boys' camps are going to open this summer, so she's thinking about her options.

CINQUINI: I wish I had some, like, easy indicator - right? - like, if we hit a certain number or don't hit a certain number or what. But I don't - I really don't know yet 'cause, you know, it's the idea that you only have to come into contact one person that's infected. And that's really scary.

MARTIN: Risks that millions of Americans are weighing as they try to keep their families healthy.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Sorry, wait a second. Those are my kids stomping upstairs. Clearly, I'm invested in this story. Risks that millions of Americans are trying to weigh as they try to keep their families healthy, stay productive in their jobs and give their kids a much needed summer break...


MARTIN: ...Whatever that ends up being.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MATTSON 2'S "SPACEMAN 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.