Second summer of COVID challenges camp directors

Pre-pandemic scenes of summer fun at Camp Ben Frankel in southern Illinois 

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Some camp directors this summer will have to decide in which cabin to put kids. Aaron Hadley, executive director of Camp Ben Frankel, has to decide where to locate an entire camp.

The Jewish overnight camp typically takes place in southern Illinois. But the state has a ban on such gatherings because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

So Hadley has a decision to make: Locate Ben Frankel in its usual home and have it likely be only a day camp, or move it to Missouri where, as it stands now, campers will be allowed to spend the night this summer.

Fortunately, prior to joining Ben Frankel in 2017, Hadley spent three years as chief operating officer of Camp Kesem, an organization started at the Hillel at Stanford University for the children of parents with cancer. It ran more than 100 camps around the country, and Hadley constantly had to move them around among rental sites.

“I have a lot of experience with switching camp sites,” Hadley said. “Not to mention, we are getting really good during the pandemic at contingency planning and navigating uncertainty and preparing ahead of time for it.”

In spite of the unanswered questions about what the pandemic will look like this summer, the directors of four Jewish camps that draw youth from the St. Louis area are planning to hold camp again this summer and are confident that they will be able to provide a fun,if different, experience for campers.

“There is a much bigger contrast between what you are coming from and what you are going to this year,” said Terri Grossman, director of Camp Sabra, the St. Louis Jewish Community Center’s camp at Lake of the Ozarks that had to cancel last summer. “So I think, for all of us, the level of gratitude will be much higher for that opportunity.”

The camp directors point to the availability of COVID-19 test kits as being one of the most important factors for the summer. That’s because they are not expecting that campers will be able to receive the vaccine by then.

“We have to have an eye to cost for the families, for our staff, the efficacy of the test,” Grossman said. “Is this an at-home test that we can administer? (Do we need) to get a mobile lab to come in? Those are the biggest variables of all.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two at- home coronavirus tests that allow people to collect the sample, process it and get the results without the use of a laboratory. One manufacturer stated that it plans to produce 20 million kits within the first half of the year and make them available in drugstores, but it’s unclear whether there will be enough for all of the camps.

The Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI), the Union for Reform Judaism’s camp in Zionsville, Ind., is asking campers to submit to a PCR test – the type considered the most accurate but which takes longer to get results – a few days before heading to camp, director Jeremy Klotz said.

During the initial stages of camp, the directors anticipate that one or two cabins will exist as bubbles or pods. In order for that to work, campers will all need to arrive on the same day, rather than in normal years when the camp could more easily accommodate people who arrived late, said Klotz, who had to cancel camp last summer.

The directors gave various estimates of when they would be able to relax some of the restrictions and allow the bubbles to meld. But said they hoped that could happen within 10 to 14 days, once they were confident that the coronavirus has not found its way into camp.

When they are able to provide tests depends on the type of testing available, Grossman said.

If campers are separated into bubbles, what happens to one of the core camp experiences, meals together, after which there is often cheering?

Klotz anticipates that campers and staff will eat in two shifts.

“I don’t think it’s going to diminish the experience,” he said. “We sing a lot at our camp, and we jump up and down and run around a ton. I think those things will have to look different because,I don’t know if the guidance has changed, but singing and projecting and screaming is not great for exposure. But we still plan to do song sessions and cheering. It just might happen at different places or look a little different.”

Other restrictions could include not being able to have visiting staff from Israel or other parts of the world because the U.S. government has suspended its J-1 visa program, said Jacob Cytryn, executive director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, which is affiliated with the Conservative Judaism movement.

Grossman said Sabra does not plan to do off-site camping because “there will be no coming and going once kids are at camp. But we will do things with them at camp that will be outdoor experiences.”

The makeup of the camp also could be affected by surges of the virus in particular parts of the country.

To accommodate for unusual enrollment numbers – one age group could have far fewer than normal, another could have a waiting list – Ramah is considering investing in temporary cabins and bathrooms to ensure that everyone who wants to come to camp is able to, said Cytryn, who also had to cancel camp last year.

In spite of the additional costs involved with operating a camp during a pandemic, such as for new cabins and COVID testing, the directors said they do not plan to charge more than the usual annual cost of living increase. They have been able to avoid a greater increase because of fundraising efforts and an increase in the size of donations.

“Camp Ben Frankel has traditionally been positioned at the affordable end of the market, and we will stay there, focused on providing a high quality experience at a reasonable price,” Hadley said.

Still, cost is only one factor for families considering sending their kids to camp. Will they feel safe doing so?

Directors are projecting that enrollment will be only slightly lower than usual. In 2019, Sabra had 741 campers. This year, it is budgeting for 650 to 700, Grossman said.

Ramah typically has about 500 campers. This year, Cytryn expects about 450.

“We are probably 6% to 8% lower than we normally are right now, which is actually pretty good,” said Klotz, who is budgeting for 400 to 420 campers rather than the usual 480 to 500. “We usually get our second-, third- and fourth-graders and new families in now, but I think parents are going wait until March, April, May to see what the scenario is in our country.”

Despite the slightly smaller camp sizes and moderately larger number of rules, the directors all project optimism about this summer.

Cytryn said parts of the experience will depend on whether campers have to wear masks for the whole summer and whether   they are able to gather in large groups. But he has also met a number of times with the medical director of Camp Winnebago in Maine, which managed to operate last summer and has served as a model for other camps.

“She reminded me and a group of other directors that the kids who went to camp last summer had a great summer and are coming back to camp,” Cytryn said. “Camp is more important now than ever with the realities of our children’s lives and the kids are used to masks and social distancing. Children are unbelievably resilient.”

Ben Frankel was the only one of the four Jewish camps tied to St. Louis to operate last summer, but it did so online. The camp still separated campers into small groups, as though they were in the same bunk at camp and remained in that group, with the same counselors throughout the whole summer.

They were will still able to make kids “feel safe enough to take some healthy, positive risks, like singing at a talent show in front of others and getting your first standing ovation. Those magical, transformative moments can still happen online, or in person with masks on,” Hadley said.

Grossman also was director of Camp Sabra in 2009, when the swine flu hit the camp “with no warning,” she said. She feels like they have a leg up during the COVID pandemic “because we know what’s coming.”

And she doesn’t think campers’ experience will be diminished.

“I was a camper in 1971 at Camp Sabra, and here is what I took away and what I still carry with me: my friendships, the community that I created, those pieces of my Jewish identity that I absorbed and carried with me for the rest of my life,” Grossman said. “And those things are easy-peasy for us to do regardless of the size of the bubble.”