With camps shut, families face summer in the great indoors

In this July 6, 2015, photo released by Camp Kiwanis, games instructor John Griffin, right, shouts directions through a megaphone as campers look on at Camp Kiwanis in the Ocala National Forest near Ocala, Fla. Camp Kiwanis will not open this summer for the first time in 72 years due to concerns about spread of the novel coronavirus. Camps across the U.S. are scrambling to make a similar decision about summer 2020 and parents are getting a first wave of closure notices for some camps in harder-hit states. (Scott Mitchell/Camp Kiwanis via AP)
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Parents around the country are learning their children’s summer camps will be canceled, delayed or moved online as the fallout from the coronavirus seeps into another facet of American life. From New Hampshire to California, camps and parents are scrambling as Zoom campfires and “virtual cabins” in the living room become more likely.

It’s a blow for children — and their parents — who have spent weeks cooped up during school closures and had considered camp a reward for adhering to weeks of social isolation and homeschooling. It also will squeeze nonprofits that rely on the infusion of cash from camp payments and put young counselors out of work.

“When we finally found out that schools were going to be closed for the rest of the year, I was like, ‘Well, there’s always summer camp.’ I was really holding out for that,” said Rasha Habiby of Los Angeles.

Her 10-year-old daughter’s first-ever sleep-away camp has been canceled, and they’re both devastated.

Habiby and her husband have demanding work schedules but kept their kids away from her parents to avoid possibly spreading the virus. Now, she said she may be forced to ask them to baby-sit.

“I panic. I cry. I do all those things. But what other options are there?” Habiby said. “I know we’re not the only ones in this situation. I’m keenly aware of that — but somehow it doesn’t make it any easier.”

An estimated 20 million U.S. children attend summer camp each year, fueling an $18 billion industry that employs over a million seasonal workers, according to the American Camp Association.

The association, which represents more than 3,100 camps, has hired independent health experts to draft recommendations for camps, and many still hope to open, said Tom Rosenberg, group president and CEO. Camps also are awaiting guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and input from state and local health departments, he said.

“Most camps are not asking if they’re going to open but how they’re going to open. It’s essential,” Rosenberg said. “Right now, 20 million kids that would normally be going to camp are cast adrift in a sea of screens.”

Camp Walt Whitman, a seven-week overnight camp in New Hampshire’s remote White Mountains, sent parents a letter with three options: canceling, postponing or going forward with social distancing and other precautions. The camp, which charges $13,000 for the full session, will decide after May 20, director Jed Dorfman said.

For smaller camps, canceling could mean financial ruin. Many nonprofits rely on camp fees for their budgets and to pay contracts signed in advance. Some that have canceled are urging parents to donate all or part of the tuition or apply it to next year.

That backfired for Galileo Learning, a San Francisco-area camp that enrolls thousands of children, after it canceled and credited families for next year. After an outcry, the company asked parents whether they would like a full or partial refund or a credit. A Galileo statement said it had laid off or furloughed more than 80% of year-round staff.

Other camps are racing to move online.

Interlochen Arts Camp, which enrolls 2,800 kids and teens from 50 countries in its prestigious summer program in Michigan, will switch to virtual lessons and workshops while making the session shorter, president Trey Devey said.

The Girl Scouts of Oregon and southwest Washington canceled in-person camps for thousands but will roll out virtual experiences in June, said Allie Roberts, director of programs for the Girl Scouts in 33 Oregon counties and three counties in Washington state.

The Girl Scouts’ 111 councils nationwide are each finding an approach that suits their region and membership.

“It’s a heartbreaking decision but it’s the right decision for the safety of our girls,” Roberts said.

Other camps are shutting down completely.

Administrators in Florida realized it was impossible to practice proper social distancing at Camp Kiwanis, a sleep-away camp tucked along a lake in the Ocala National Forest. Each week, over 100 kids spend four nights and then go back to their homes in Marion County, which is seeing new coronavirus cases daily, camp director Scott Mitchell said.

The camp has been a fixture for 72 years, and one-quarter of the children get scholarships from the local Kiwanis Club, he said.

“Go on Netflix and find the cheesiest summer camp movie you can find, and that’s us. It’s a traditional, good old-fashioned summer camp,” Mitchell said. “It’s kind of a sad day for our community. … But if you look at other places that have really been hit, it’s a small price to pay.”

Still, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for many, including young people who have started to expect disappointment as the pandemic drags on.

Delia Graham, 15, was ecstatic to spend six weeks at Willowbrook Arts Camp, where she’s been going since age 5. She’s old enough to work as a half-day counselor, a step toward becoming a full-fledged staffer at the popular drama and arts camp near Portland, Oregon.

Graham and five camp friends spent days in a FaceTime group chat debating what would happen before getting the bad news, said Graham, who had already been struggling with her school’s closure.

“I didn’t think it would get so bad, that it would last this long,” she said of the pandemic. “I really miss my friends.”


Flaccus reported from Portland, Oregon. Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed. Follow Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus.