For Cornell professors, staff and the broader Ithaca community, sending children to summer camps is an annual tradition that can be a stress reliever for parents and a skill builder for kids.
However, the pandemic will almost certainly leave a lasting impact on camps, many of which across the country could not operate over the summer due to public health rules. This trend played out in Ithaca as well, with many local sleep-away programs forced to shut down, leaving their futures uncertain.
COVID-19 financially devastated the camp industry. The American Camp Association — a nonprofit that represents 3,000 member camps across the country — projects pandemic-based losses to total $16 billion in revenue, 900,000 in jobs and $4.4 billion in industry wages.
Laurie Browne, the director of research at the association’s Greater Salt Lake City chapter, estimated that camps across the country faced an average 65 to 70 percent loss in up-front funding. Alvaro Ferreira, a volunteer chairperson for the Local Council of Leaders in ACA’s Upstate New York chapter, said about 70 percent of camps in New York didn’t open in 2020.
“It wasn’t a decision up to ACA,” Ferreira said. “It was a decision for each individual camp as to whether they could move forward in a safe and healthy way.”
New York did not allow overnight camps to operate, but permitted day camps. Thus, many camps adapted to a no-board, daytime model. Some, including the Girl Scouts of NYPenn Pathways, also began to allow small groups to use campgrounds recreationally instead of hosting formal camp experiences.
The YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County canceled all of its yearly programs, except for Camp Adventure, a day camp serving children aged five to twelve. It adapted the program to accommodate a reduced capacity and institute new safety measures, including smaller groups, gymnasium room dividers and daily health check-ins.
Various camps implemented remote workshops with materials provided. Ithaca’s Sciencenter conducted one for campers in kindergarten to sixth grade. Participants received activity boxes before camp began, and they completed various programs from home. Educational sessions on engineering, biology, and chemistry took place over Zoom.
Aside from the economic devastation that the pandemic continues to cause the camp industry, widespread closures could adversely affect campers in the long term.
In 2016, Browne’s team began a research study on the long-term effects of camp on children. Previous ACA research demonstrated that camp attendance has long-term, beneficial outcomes for relationship skills, problem solving and connection to nature.
“We found that, in fact, these outcomes do last over time,” Browne said. “And they do play a very meaningful role in supporting young people as they navigate college.”
Based on 40 years of camp facilitation, Ferreira agreed, “They’re learning about how to resolve conflict, they’re learning how to communicate, they’re getting up in front of other people for the first time in their life.”
Browne’s study has also demonstrated that camp experiences promote “appreciation for difference.”
“Camp is an incredible context to be around people who come from different backgrounds than you do,” she said, explaining that camp promotes communal connection between children of different geographic, religious, class and racial backgrounds.
“Camp is a microcosm of the world,” Ferreira said, underscoring that the non-profit, camp sector has always emphasized fostering inclusion and community with a wide array of people. This summer, the ACA partnered with Teaching Matters to host an educator-tailored webinar on the impacts of racism in U.S. summer camps. It also named diversity, equity and inclusion as its main strategic priority.
Looking ahead, the ACA believes that struggles in the camp industry will continue for some time. The Upstate New York office has just begun planning several different strategies for different potential circumstances, Ferreira said.
“We are all in agreement that summer of 2021 will be a COVID-19 summer,” Browne said. Camp professionals are currently working on online and hybrid programs in case their programs aren’t allowed to return to in-person.
“Our goal is to get as many kids to camp in as many ways as possible,” Browne said.