Summer Camp 2020: Social Distance Style

The way summer camps and daycare centers operate during the pandemic may offer a glimpse into how schools might safely reopen in the fall.

photo of disinfectant at a summer camp
A YMCA summer camp in northwest suburban Palatine is underway with new restrictions, including smaller groups, face masks and lots of disinfecting. Susie An / WBEZ
photo of disinfectant at a summer camp
A YMCA summer camp in northwest suburban Palatine is underway with new restrictions, including smaller groups, face masks and lots of disinfecting. Susie An / WBEZ

Summer Camp 2020: Social Distance Style

The way summer camps and daycare centers operate during the pandemic may offer a glimpse into how schools might safely reopen in the fall.

On a hot, sunny morning last week, a few YMCA camp counselors in northwest suburban Palatine stood far out in a grassy field and led a call and response singalong.

The small group of campers shouted back through their masks.

For many families, that was far better than the alternative. Just a month ago, it was unclear if kids would be able to mingle in groups at an in-person day camp this summer. Parents register kids months in advance, but this year, some made an early decision to keep kids at home because of safety concerns. Others checked in on a weekly basis because they saw it as a necessity.

“I was more concerned about it not happening,” said Palatine parent Maryam Brotine.

She and her husband continue to work from home, and she wanted to get her 8-year-old son back in the Buehler YMCA summer camp because the isolation was taking a toll.

“It’s hard for young children to grow and [have] relationships and have imaginative play over a screen,” she said.

Now that Illinois and Chicago have moved into Phase 3, and beginning Friday, Phase 4 of reopening, kids can enjoy a somewhat familiar summer — but it means a new way of operating and teaching kids how to interact.

“Camp is normally about big groups and having everyone together to participate,” said Allison Greenman, senior director of day camp operations at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. “We’ve reformatted so everyone is in a small group.”

Like a lot of in-person summer camps and day cares that have just reopened this month, YMCA has had to overhaul its operation. Drop-off and pick-up is all done curbside with daily health screenings. Camp counselors wipe down kids’ belongings when they arrive. The number of campers is significantly reduced, and everyone must wear a mask. Field trips and swimming pools are canceled this year.

“Keeping the kids safe, active, outside is a priority just because of the fresh air,” Greenman said. “And making sure that they still have the interaction that they would normally get and all of those social skills.”

Even though the camp has reduced its enrollment from 300 to 100 spots, it hasn’t filled up yet. Greenman said parents are being cautious, but she expects registration to pick up in the coming weeks.

Isolation bubble to social life

Some parents are eager to get their kids out of the isolation bubble they’ve been living in for the past several months. Parents have noticed manners and good behavior have taken a bit of a slide during the stay-at-home order.

Brotine said there were many mornings when her children greeted her with a whine before saying anything else, a scene likely familiar to many.

“I’ve had some anxiety, like ‘Are you going to remember to be nice and be patient with other people,’” she said of her 8-year-old son. “I think he’s getting that back. So I’m hopeful.”

While older kids are eager to socialize, some parents are concerned about younger children who may have some separation anxiety after months of being at home.

Marla Thoma runs the Creative Learning Montessori School in northwest suburban Barrington, which takes children as young as infants and toddlers. She’s finding that small children are adjusting surprisingly well. There were tears in the beginning, but by the end of the first week, she said kids were back to their pre-pandemic routines.

“We as adults are looking at it with all the life experience of life behind us,” Thoma said. “Children, every time they open their eyes, there’s a new experience.”

She said that’s made it easier for kids to adapt to new rules like wearing masks. She said the other day she walked two boys back to their classroom after a mask break.

“I hear one of them say to the other ‘masks up’ because that’s what their teacher says to them,” she recalled. “I turn around, and they’re both just flipping them up over their ears.”

The pandemic has put a halt to what kids have been taught about sharing and giving each other hugs and high fives. Tonya Bibbs is an assistant professor of social work with the Erikson Institute, an early childhood graduate school. She said as more children re-enter social spaces, there are still ways for them to learn those lessons.

“We can think of substitutes for that,” she said. “There are ways that we can with our language help children appreciate one another and express their love and friendships with one another.”

She also said social distancing rules may be in place for a while, and it’s important for parents and caregivers to be as honest as possible about the pandemic.

“They’ve also experienced social upheaval, and I think they’ll have a lot of questions and want to talk about it,” Bibbs said.

She said the way this generation of kids thinks of infection and intimacy will likely be different from any that came before it.

A test for the fall

While summer camps are getting started, families are keeping an eye on what’s coming for the fall. The Illinois State Board of Education released recommendations Tuesday allowing schools to reopen. School districts have the flexibility to come up with their own plans, like having staggered schedules or having a blend of remote and in-person learning. But there are a few requirements that everyone must follow, like wearing face coverings and having a more strict sanitation plan.

Palatine parent Jennifer Bova said it’s much easier to work from home after dropping her kids off at summer camp. She said it feels like a step toward getting back to normal.

She works at a north suburban school district and said there is a lot more planning schools will have to do to reopen safely, but the success of summer camp can offer confidence.

“This is at least one way of showing people that there is a way to make things work in a reasonable way,” Bova said. “It will not last forever, but it very well may be our reality for this entire school year.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.