By the time summer rolls around, families across Chicagoland will be getting back to some version of normal — and that includes summer day camp. The hibernation of COVID life may be waning, says Cally Vevers, director of auxiliary programming at Bennett Day School, a PreK-12 independent school in Chicago’s West Town.
“In the last several weeks, I have been watching conversations that signal a huge shift from being completely dialed back and under lockdown to navigating what it means to venture out safely,” Vevers says. “It’s exciting because it shows that people are understanding that we are living in this stage of the pandemic now and we’re moving in a good direction.”
As parents are making decisions about day camp experiences for their children, they should recognize that there may be some speedbumps along the way. After so many months of virtual and hybrid experiences, kids may feel anxious about rejoining group experiences. “The world has shifted and yes, kids are resilient, but it’s our responsibility to make their transitions as seamless as possible,” says Vevers.
In summer 2020, Bennett Day School provided childcare camps to children of essential workers and learned a lot about how to provide safe, enjoyable experiences for kids. And, when back-to-school time came around, Bennett Day School opened the doors for its 270 students.
“Since June of 2020 to today, we have had zero cases of COVID transmission on campus because of the incredible amount of investment we have made in developing protocols alongside our CDC advisors,” Vevers says.
Drawing on her vast experience with summer camp, afterschool and childcare programming with Bennett Day School, Vevers shares her top tips for easing your child back into fun communal experiences — and some questions you can ask your camp provider right now.
Provide some face time
“If you have been truly sequestered with just your family during this time, your child may have to relearn how to be in spaces with louder noises,” Vevers says. Age plays a role here, but kids may need time to adjust to what it means to be in a group environment, so find ways to acclimate them as best you can. Familiarity can help.
“We have counselor introductions before camp starts, either through a video call or as a pre-recorded message that kids can watch whenever is convenient,” Vevers says. A familiar face will be a welcome sight on that first day of camp. If your camp doesn’t offer this, ask for a photo of the counselors prior to camp or any other identifying information — explore the surroundings with Google Maps if you have to — to help your child feel grounded.
Share and practice safety measures
Wearing a mask for 20 minutes in the grocery store is different from wearing it all day. Generally speaking, kids do very well with a mask, but to avoid surprises, schedule time for your child to become accustomed to longer periods of mask-wearing time.
“Use this time before summer starts to practice. Head to the playground and wear masks while you are playing, then use this time to practice social distancing. What does 6 feet mean to a 5-year-old? Try to offer some spatial awareness,” Vevers says.
Vevers’ pro-tip to help counselors get to know your kid quickly: write their name on their mask. “It doesn’t have to be beautifully decorated, but everyone has a Sharpie at home, and this one simple thing can help your child feel connected and known by their counselor,” she says.
Use the language of personal safety
Don’t assume that your child immediately understands the concept of cohort, pod or cabin. Take a bit of time to talk about these small-group concepts, using whatever vocabulary your day camp has adopted, and give your child a heads-up about what to expect.
“A lot of times, kids are taken along for the ride, but if we take the time to talk with them about what to expect, the experience will be a lot smoother for everyone,” Vevers says. “Parents are experts in their own kids and if we can have some simple conversations over dinner or at bedtime, kids feel included in the experience. If you show them you trust the camp and the counselors, you are transferring that trust to your child.”
So, what questions can parents ask about how their chosen day camp is running this summer? Vevers offers her best suggestions to develop a good comfort level.
“Give camps a chance to tell you what they plan. What they offer up will show you how experienced they are in working with kids during the pandemic. They may answer all of your questions with this information, or they may provide you with a jumping-off point for additional questions you might have,” Vevers says. You may want to ask who has helped the camp develop its protocols for safety. Do they follow the scientific guidelines of the CDC and state and local health authorities? Early on, Bennett Day School leveraged a partnership with the CDC to develop best practices that have significantly enhanced the safety of the school community.
Ask about masks
Not all summer camp activities are compatible with wearing a mask. “Ask when during the day your child won’t be wearing a mask and what they do to create safety during those times,” Vevers says. “This might be while swimming or eating lunch or during naptime.”
Bennett Day Camp, for example, has a plan for every situation. Lunches are eaten outside on lap trays with ample distance, and when the campers must eat inside, they are spaced 8 or 9 feet apart by partitions. “Lunch is the highest risk time. Counselors wear goggles and face shields and also eat their lunches at a different time than the campers,” Vevers says.
Learn about staff safety
Camp counselors have their own lives outside of camp, but what is the camp doing to help them prioritize their own safety? “We never hire young kids as counselors, and our assistant counselors are college students, often studying education. Our lead counselors are educators or long-term established team members,” Vevers says, adding that Bennett Day School staff members are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
What happens when it rains?
At some point, inclement weather will force campers inside, at least for a little while. Adequate ventilation is an important component to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, so find out your camp’s plan. “We’re very fortunate for the good planning of Bennett Day School in making sure that each room inside the school has independent ventilation with outside air,” Vevers says.
Summer camp can be the ideal way to reintegrate your child into post-pandemic life. Bennett Day Camp’s full-day programs allow for junior kindergartners through fifth graders to enjoy classic summer day camp fun, and sixth through 10th graders to dig into specialized camps that give them real-world experience designing and building with reclaimed wood and creating an app for a local nonprofit. Additionally, Bennett Day Camp offers a Counselor In Leadership Training program for 11th and 12th grade students to receive hands-on experience in childcare and receive CPR and first-aid certification.
“Summer camp is my passion. To bring our values-based curriculum into a summer camp format is what I get excited about,” Vevers says. “I’m also just so excited to see kids have a summer again and to have some normalcy. It’s important to get them back out there. Summer camp is a really big thing for a child.”