The Centers for Disease Control’s changing directions on mask wearing have parents and summer camp owners in a quandary.
As of May 20, the CDC recommendations for youth and summer camps have not been updated to account for the looser masking guidelines for vaccinated individuals. Currently, they advise, “All people in camp facilities should wear masks at all times with exceptions for certain people, or for certain settings or activities, such as while eating and drinking or swimming . . . Develop mask policies for all campers and staff that set the expectation that people will use masks throughout camp. This includes campers in the same small group or cohort.”
Brian Witt, head director of Arrowhead Day Camp in Chester County, Montgomery County, Delaware County, and the Main Line, said of the current recommendations, “It’s extremely too stringent.”
Arrowhead Day Camp runs programs for children ages four to 14 with door-to-door transportation and various activities including sports, technology, culinary arts, music, and fishing. According to the Arrowhead website, it operates with a belief that “a busy child is a happy child.”
Witt’s disagreement with the CDC camp recommendations stems from multiple concerns.
“It’s not realistic to have a camp and have kids six feet apart at all time. That’s not camp,” he said. Also, “I would say most of our parents do not want their kids wearing masks when it’s 95 degrees while playing outside.”
Currently, Arrowhead Day Camp is awaiting updated state guidance on COVID-19 guidelines for camps.
ESF Camps, which offers sports, STEM and arts programs for children in preschool to 12th grade in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, is taking a more cautious approach to COVID-19 safety.
“We have really been hyper-focused on CDC guidelines, as well as what our school partners in each of the markets have been doing,” Michael Rouse, executive director and co-founder of ESF Camps, told the Delaware Valley Journal. “We’ve been on a weekly basis updating and looking at when the guidelines are lessening up and where and how according to the Department of Health at the state that we’re in, as well as the restrictions that are changing.”
ESF’s advanced safety plan involves a seven-point system including limited enrollment (decreased by about 30 percent compared to 2019 numbers) and smaller group sizes, specialized staff training, and camper and staff screening. As of May 17, ESF’s masking guidelines for children require masks when indoors or in large groups. However, masks can come off when children are in small groups outside.
ESF is celebrating its 40th anniversary after starting the camp at The Haverford School in 1982. In the past, ESF has been awarded the accolade of “Safest Camp in America” from the Aspen Institute, and it is committed to upholding that honor, according to Rouse.
“I believe you can bring out the best experience and create an environment where they are going to have the time of their life without promoting the fact that you can’t do this or you can’t do that. We’re not limiting any of the activities whatsoever. These kids are in for the summer of their life,” he said.
The West Chester Studio at Uptown!, a theater that offers acting, singing and backstage tech programs for children ages four to 17, is taking a similar approach to ESF Camps regarding COVID-19 safety. While their programs are held indoors, WCStudio takes the groups outside for regular breaks, lunch, and activities. Masking is required by everyone when indoors and they have found a combination of masks and shields that work best for singing which keeps the kids safe and comfortable.
“Four years ago, the renovation process which turned the armory into a theater included a brand new HVAC system throughout the building. Uptown! has added an iWave system, which purifies the air even further, and then on top of that, we’re using quality air filters,” Therese Walden-Murphy, the director of education at WCStudio, said.
On whether they will be updating masking guidelines based on the new CDC recommendations for vaccinated individuals she said, “We realize 50 percent to 70 percent of our children will not be vaccinated because they are not old enough. With this in mind, we anticipate our campers and teachers will wear masks again this summer.”
WCStudio is in a unique position as a normal year would still involve small groups of children and staff. Because of its intimate design, it has been able to sustain the same group sizes as years past, with no more than 18 campers and 2 teachers per group. This year it is running only two camps at a time to decrease the number of people in the building.
The response from parents has been more than positive, according to Walden-Murphy. “Kids and teens just weren’t smiling. When they came in and took a class or two each week, parents responded with, ‘Oh, my gosh, my daughter is smiling again,’ ‘He’s having so much fun,’ and, ‘You have no idea how much your classes have helped bring back a bit of normal life for our child.’ So, I believe WCStudio at Uptown! really made a difference, and I’m glad we have the facility to be able to create this opportunity for area kids and teens.”
Darla Clarke-Clayton, a West Chester parent of 13 and 17-year old children, said of the CDC summer camp recommendations, “I’m at a place where I’m so happy for some small sense of normalcy at this point, honestly. I’m glad for the regulations and precautions because I don’t want exposure to ruin camp or ruin our plans for the week after camp for that matter.”