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Summer means swimming, crafts and camaraderie for the roughly 26 million children who attend camp in the U.S. But the pandemic has closed an estimated 82 percent of the country's overnight camps and many more daytime programs, causing layoffs and lost revenue. And for parents and children, the absence of community and activity is yielding a summer they don’t want to repeat. John Yang reports.
For millions of American children, summer usually means swimming, learning crafts, and playing at summer camp.
But with so many camps close by the pandemic, John Yang looks at what it means for children and their parents.
For the past two years, Essence Tunley has sent her 10-year-old daughter, to Wildwood Outdoor Education Center outside Kansas city for a week-long sleepaway camp. It's a highlight of summer for Elle.
I get to meet new people, I get to — I got to go swimming in the lake. And I had — and the food was great.
It's a family tradition. Essence Tunley attended Wildwood when she was a young girl.
Social interaction, the diversity, it highlighted that for me. And that's why — that's something that's very important, that, before I send her into the world, that she's had experiences with a lot of different people
So, news that Wildwood, like many camps across the country, would be closed this year was a blow.
I felt upset, because I really wanted to make new friends. And I wanted to — I wanted to try new things there. I normally struggle not being noticed. And at camp, I don't feel like that. I have lots of friends who care about me.
For many, camp is staple of summer. According to the American Camp Association, more than 26 million kids attend camp every year. But, this year, the group estimates that about 40 percent of day camps aren't offering regular services, and 82 percent of overnight camps are closed.
Camps provide more than just fun. Many serve low-income families, a group hurt especially hard during the pandemic, and children with special needs.
For families already dealing with school closures and social distancing, it's another unexpected change.
My son hasn't seen another child since March.
Eva Joseph's 12-year-old son, Stephen, has cerebral palsy and vision impairment. He relies on day camps for key developmental skills.
When you have a child with a disability like Stephen's, especially motor disability, you know, they're constantly growing, as much as you want them to stop, and they're getting bigger and heavier, and their bodies need to catch up.
And so the summer camps could afford four to eight weeks sometimes of just working on his body, working on those physical skills, so that we basically keep him at a baseline, so that he wouldn't lose his mobility throughout the year.
Camp also allows him to grow socially and emotionally.
He gets stronger. He gets more confident. He — I mean, he's a little boy. Little boys want to go. They want to — they want to move. They want to explore their environment.
And so, once he starts gaining that strength and that confidence in these camps that are so amazing — they have always been amazing — it's just — he comes alive.
I mean, even as a kid, but, even as an adult, I still have a countdown for camp. I still have an app on my phone that tells me, I'm like, OK, 36 days until camp starts.
Emma Nockels attended the YMCA's Camp Duncan outside Chicago for four years as a camper and has worked there for the last eight.
It was heartbreaking.
You know, you wait the whole year to be at one place, and you wait the whole year to just have these experiences with these kids, like, you know, just campfires, fishing, kayaking, whatever it is. You wait literally your entire year for it. And then just to have the news that it wasn't going to be this year, it's just — I can't even — I can't — I cried on the phone to my boss. I was so upset about it.
For her, there's an added financial burden.
That's how I pay for school, and that's how I get by, really.
So, you know, thinking financially, it's been really kind of devastating. But just thinking about more camp and not having to see these kids is even more devastating.
The American Camp Association estimates, more than 900,000 jobs and $16 billion in revenue have been lost.
Camps have opened, some with serious consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation of a June outbreak at a YMCA overnight camp in Georgia, which did not require masks for campers, found that at least 44 percent of the 597 campers and staff tested positive for COVID-19.
What we have seen with these outbreaks was not unexpected.
Mercedes Carnethon is vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
We have to acknowledge that we are working in the middle of a pandemic. And in some cases where summer camps are held in areas where caseloads are going up, we are certainly going to see that mirrored in the population of children who attend camps.
At the same time, Carnethon says there are lessons public health officials and parents can learn from these cases, especially about whether to reopen schools.
I don't see this as markedly changing our decisions about whether to go back to school, which should be largely driven by the background rates of disease in a given community.
It emphasizes the flexibility that we're going to need to have with plans. I see this as more information to refine the process in order to hopefully make it safe as possible, again, emphasizing that there is no no-risk situation.
Parents are finding hopeful signs in this frustrating summer, like the way young Stephen Coleman has handled the constant uncertainty.
His mother, Eva Joseph:
Like all other kids, they learn to adapt, and then they learn to find their own center as they try to absorb their parents' angst and changes in routine and being cut off from his friends and his teachers.
And I feel as though he's done that in a way that I'm just really proud of him for.
And in Kansas City, Elle Tunley says she's looking forward to when the coronavirus isn't a problem.
I would like to go really, really, really bad, because I want to meet new friends, I want to learn how to make new friendship bracelets, and I want to be able to go into the deep end again.
Yes, that's the highlight, is getting to the deep end of that pool.
She taught herself how to tread water, so she's ready.
Ready, she hopes, for next summer.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
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