Coronavirus puts Michigan summer camps in doubt

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Step aside, lice check: Coronavirus screenings are expected to be the big test this year at kids' summer camps in Michigan — that is, if the sacred ritual is saved this season.

At a time when parents would be sending deposits for camp experiences for their kids and making mental checklists for camp gear, the coronavirus has sidelined the ability of families and the camps themselves to make plans for the summer.

Camp organizations from across Michigan say they are waiting on guidance from the state and federal governments on whether they can safely operate camps amid the global pandemic that has hit Michigan especially hard.

Some camps have waved off June as a start date and postponed sessions until July and August, pending public health guidance. Some, such as the international arts Interlochen camp near Traverse City, have already canceled in-person camp and announced a pivot to virtual camp due to COVID-19 concerns.

The YMCA of Metro Detroit, which hosted more than 3,800 day campers across 16 camps in Metro Detroit and another 2,500 at residential camps across the state last summer, is planning to have summer camp this year, spokeswoman Latitia McCree said, but has not determined a start date.

"We are definitely planning to have summer camp," McCree said. "We don’t have the dates and times. We are waiting on a directive from the governor's office. We want to provide camp, and we want to provide it safely."

Last month, all summer camp programs, classes and events were suspended by the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department amid coronavirus concerns.

The College for Creative Studies canceled all in-person youth and teen summer programs for June, July and August out of concerns over COVID-19. Some classes will be moving to an online format June 3 for three-day short courses for students ages 8-14.

For camp director Dottie Myers-Hill, the uncertainty of operating summer camp and inability to advise staff, parents and campers who want to attend the Van Buren Youth Camp in Bloomingdale outside Kalamazoo is a daily struggle. 

"It's been awful," Myers-Hill said. "We have already hired staff, offered positions to 20 people who are supposed to come work for us, including international workers. We have this amazing team and we have been planning since early in the year, and we may not be able to do all of that."

Still, parents are registering children and no decision has been made as of Friday about whether to hold or cancel camp, Myers-Hill said. The start has been pushed back from June 14 to June 28. Last year, the camp hosted 850 campers.

"We are waiting for guidance from the CDC and the American Camp Association," she said. "I will do everything possible to open camp for the kids."

Dr. Michael Ambrose, a Metro Detroit pediatrician who is part of an advisory task force to the White House on interim CDC guidelines for camps, estimates 20% of Michigan camps have canceled in-person camps while the remainder are holding off and waiting for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Camp Association.

“No. 1, parents very much want their kids to go to camp. There is a very big push and they are hopeful and want camps to operate this summer,” said Ambrose, who operates an electronic medical records company for camps and other organizations.

"As communities begin to reopen, the need for camp is greater now more than ever. While health and safety are always the top priority, camps will undoubtedly experience new challenges this summer."

Interim CDC guidance says arrival and drop-off times or locations should be staggered at summer camps.

Applying safety measures

To have safe camps, Ambrose said there must be daily screenings of staff and campers.

"The biggest and one of the most important things camps can do is pre-screening," Ambrose said. "Does child have a cough, fever or shortness of breath? One recommendation is to ask prior to their arrival to camp through an electronic health record or a generic form. Communication is important this summer. Camps need to communicate goals and policies and families need to understand and be comfortable with them."

Social distancing won’t be as easy, but it is necessary, he said.

"It’s going to be very difficult to do that in a camp setting; to have every child six feet away is not realistic,” Ambrose said. "Camps are going to have to look different this year."

That means kids alternating head to toe when bunking, sticking with the same group of campers and doing away with communal dining halls, according to interim guidance from the CDC.

The guidance, which is still being reviewed and is expected to be finalized soon, says arrival and drop-off times or locations should be staggered at camps.

All field trips and extracurricular activities should be canceled and camps should close communal use spaces such as dining halls and playgrounds if possible or stagger their use and disinfect in between.

For thousands of kids, summer camps serve as memorable lifelong experiences. For parents, they also serve as child care.

Mary Riegle of Ferndale has two daughters she planned to send to camp this summer in Metro Detroit. In past years, Katerina, 11, and Anna, 9, attended day camp in Ferndale for fun while their parents worked.

"It's important for the kids for the outlet," Riegle said, "but I don't know how the camps can do it. Our children naturally gravitate toward each other. They want to high-five and braid each other's hairs. How can you have a camp of 10 kids or less?"

Virtual summer camps do not appeal to Riegle, who says her girls are already spending too much time on their computers.

"They want face-to-face engagement. This was the year I really wanted them to go overnight for a week or two," Riegle said. "It's such a bizarre time. Lice is no longer the biggest concern. COVID is the 2020 lice."

The guidance also states all field trips and extracurricular activities should be canceled and camps should close communal use spaces such as dining halls if possible.

'Eager to board the bus'

Some teens, who have been locked inside their homes with their family, are holding out hope they can attend summer camp.

Lev Berdy came home a different person after a month at Camp Tamarack last summer.

Initially reluctant to spend four weeks at the popular Michigan sleep-away camp with 1,100 acres of woods, lakes and trails with sites across the state, Berdy got his first real taste of independence there and returned home to Oak Park with that summer rite of passage under his belt.

"It made me more open to try different things and to keep an open mind," said Berdy, 14.

Camp Tamarack officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In an email to Camp Tamarack families, camp director Lee Trepeck said the health and well-being of the entire camp community remains a priority.

"Emotionally, we are eager to board the bus and begin the summer; medically, we are uncertain if and when that might even be a possibility," Trepeck said in the April 22 email.

"As various locations work through their 'hotspot' status and more insight is shared, we are ascertaining when we can safely run camp. This information is being thoroughly processed and intensely analyzed," he said.

In a video issued Monday, Trepeck and other camp staffers announced the decision to scrap this summer's programs. "The decision to cancel camp breaks our hearts," he said. "We too are so sad and share in this pain."

Tired of six weeks of isolation from his friends and school, Berdy said he wanted to go back to camp. His mother, Dina Baldwin Berdy, had not signed him up yet because of the uncertainty about the camp's plans.

"As much as we want a summer camp for our kids and as much as a part of me is holding on to a thread of hope, as the days tick by, it's harder and harder to see it happening," Baldwin Berdy said last week.

The renowned music and art camp Interlochen is holding virtual camps for the first time in its 93-year history due to public health concerns from COVID-19.

Last year, 2,755 campers from 40 countries and 53 states/territories attended Interlochen Arts Camp, in northern Michigan about four hours from Detroit.

The camp offers summer programs in acting, musical theater, creative writing, visual arts, dance, filmmaking, classical music performance and composition and more for students in grades 2-12.

Camp president Trey Devey said after careful evaluation of the projected impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision was made to pivot the summer arts camp to a virtual model last month.

"No words can fully capture our profound sadness and disappointment in the loss of convening on campus," Devey said, "but we are guided by our first priority: ensuring the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, staff and volunteers."

Interlochen will begin its camp programs with a virtual gathering of students on June 28, with classes from June 29 to July 17. Virtual multidisciplinary performances will be held July 18 and 19, officials said.

The online camps, which are discounted at more than 50% off regular prices, will feature seminars and coaching led by world-class artists and arts leaders including violinist Nicola Benedetti, the School of American Ballet’s Craig Hall, television writer and producer Janet Leahy and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

Devey said while the idea of a virtual arts camp may seem at odds with Interlochen’s  immersive experience, it is consistent with the institution’s history of adapting to changing times.

"During the Great Depression, for example, Interlochen Arts Camp founder Joseph Maddy pursued creative new outreach with ingenuity and resolve, including broadcasting the Sunday concerts of the orchestra across the country over the CBS and NBC radio networks," Devey said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com