More than 100 campers are set to step foot on the grounds of Camp Galil next week, all of whom will be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Requiring vaccination at the Bucks County summer camp for Jewish students, which offers two 3.5-week overnight sessions, wasn’t a difficult decision for executive director David Weiss. He said most campers were already vaccinated when the requirement was announced and few declined to attend because of the policy.
In fact, “enrollment is ticking up ever so slightly from last year,” when it saw an 18% drop compared to 2019, the prior year the camp was fully open, Weiss said. “We were very encouraged” with the enthusiasm around camp for this summer.
Galil is one of several sleepaway camps in Pennsylvania that are preparing for particularly busy summers, as coronavirus restrictions ease and many parents are eager for their children to experience some old-fashioned, technology-less fun. And children are excited to be back with friends in person, with some supervised independence, camp directors say.
In a typical year, about 26 million children attend more than 15,000 camps, according to the American Camp Association, but only about 18% of overnight camps and 60% of day camps were able to operate in 2020 due to the virus and related restrictions.
Camps, which are often family-run, had to pivot in summer 2020, when few were able to open after the virus hit. Some rented their cabins out to individual families for camp-inspired vacations; others like Galil offered online programming for a reduced cost.
By 2021, most camps were able to open with restrictions and regular testing, and a renewed enthusiasm for the experience after a year off.
Now, summer 2022 is poised to come with fewer restrictions, a more traditional camp experience, and, for many, indications of even better enrollment (the American Camp Association, which accredits some but not all camps, said they’ll have a more accurate picture in late summer or fall). The association has put out a field guide, to be used by camps in conjunction with CDC guidance, that recommends holding activities outdoors when possible, masking indoors, and limiting off-site exposure, but ultimately each camp sets its own rules.
Anecdotally, “we’re hearing that traditional day and overnight camps are definitely seeing strong demand,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and chief executive officer of the American Camp Association. That demand is from “new families that never considered camp, families that have gone to camp, all of it.”
One of the draws since the pandemic started has been the technology-less aspect of the summer camp experience, he said, which can improve their mental health.
“Parents are seeing their kids have been on computers a lot. Maybe kids are more comfortable interacting with their peers online than in person. They can see that kids need to reconnect with their peers,” Rosenberg said. “They need time to just breathe and be and play and actually play with other children.”
There’s been a noticeable increase of new, younger campers at Camp Saginaw in Oxford, Chester County, said owner and director Michael Petkov. That’s partly because some of those children were introduced to the experience with their parents and siblings in 2020, when the camp rented out cabins for “camp” family vacations.
Enrollment for this summer is “similar to pre-COVID years. It’s pretty strong right now,” he said. “We’ve shifted to a much younger camp. So the future looks very bright.”
In the Poconos, Camp Oneka owner and director Rachel Waszczak said her all-girls camp is set to have more campers than pre-COVID years, with many newcomers aged 7 to 16 drawn to the experience as a way “to kind of reset.”
“A lot of them wanted to come and just be away from technology,” something that filled so many of the children’s isolated days during parts of the pandemic, Waszczak said.
“I’m hoping in the next couple of years the numbers will increase even more,” she added.
Since reopening last summer, Camp Nock-A-Mixon in Kintnersville, Bucks County, has maintained an enrollment of about 500 campers, what it averaged in pre-pandemic times, said director Gary Glaser.
Last summer the camp did rapid and PCR testing on day one, he said, and a second round of PCR testing for all 780 campers and staff a few days later. During the interim period, campers only participated in activities with their individual cabins for easier contact tracing if someone was positive.
“We had some parents who felt it was an overreaction and we had some who felt like it wasn’t,” Glaser said. “Neither of those parents pulled their kids out of camp. Most of the time, most people understood.”
Ultimately, Glaser said, both rounds of tests came back 100% negative. The camp celebrated in a gathering at the amphitheater where campers, staff, and the camp mascot all whipped off their masks when the news was announced, he said.
“From there, we were able to run camp as normal,” he said.
This summer, with only six campers not fully vaccinated, the camp will resume some activities they went without last summer, such as isolated off-site trips. However, they will still take precautions, including testing during the first days of the summer, Glaser said. Testing is suggested by the American Camp Association, but it’s unclear how many camps do so.
On the national scale, “we’re very hopeful about this summer,” said Rosenberg, of the American Camp Association. “The challenge is we’re still in the pandemic.”