Camping in the Time of COVID

An exploration of a summer camp experience during a pandemic.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Sabrina Chen

As I go to the first day of training for the staff at the day camp I am due to work at in the summer, I am greeted by a man in an N-95 mask holding a temperature gun. He asks me a few questions:

Have you tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days?

Have you shown any symptoms of COVID-19 in the past 14 days?

Have you been to any states where you are legally required to quarantine after visiting?

I answer: No. No. No.

He takes my temperature: 98.6 degrees. I am given a slip of paper and ushered toward another tent, where a woman asks my name and sticks a cotton swab up my nose. I am then sent to a table to wait for my results. I’m surprised at how fast my negative result comes back, but what was I to expect from a camp that demands $1,000 a week as tuition?

This summer camp was the first semblance of a structured day that I had had since March. Sure, there was remote learning, but on a normal day, I would finish all the work before 11:00 a.m. and spend the rest of the day napping. Now, the rest of the high-school and college-aged staff and I would be forced to work on a schedule. It was a shock back to normalcy for both us and the campers.

The camp wanted to give an aura of optimism and fun even as a disease raged across the country. There would be signs with fun little designs reminding people to social distance and informing them of the proper way of wearing a mask. The staff was given cloth masks with smiley faces reading “Be Happy!” Hand sanitizer stations were set everywhere around the camp with signs telling the children that proper hygiene was a superpower.

When the campers finally came, they stayed inside their cars. A form would be filled out every day, and someone would screen the kids and take their temperatures before they went inside the camp. Campers and counselors were separated into tiny little “pods” where they would go about their activities. These pods were not allowed to mix in any way. The staff was required to wear masks at all times and to sanitize their hands and work stations between pods. The children didn’t have to wear masks unless they were on a bus. The outdoor setting of the camp gave this some sense, but it began to feel arbitrary when a 13-year-old camper didn’t have to wear a mask when a 15-year-old counselor-in-training did.

I worked as a lifeguard this summer. We weren’t required to wear our masks while we were sitting up in a chair, mainly because the height of the chair acted as a de facto social distancing measure. Otherwise, we would be forced to wear masks while on deck and anywhere else except where we ate lunch. Anyone who was inside the pool didn’t have to wear a mask for the reasons of “chlorine killed the virus” and “why the heck would you want to get your mask wet.” There was, however, a system of ropes inside the pools to prevent any of the various pods inside them from mixing. It was a hopeless battle to get the kids to obey the rules. It became another recurring thing that we whistled at the kids about what not to do throughout the summer: “Don’t jump on the ropes. Don’t stand on kickboards. Don’t go in the area between the ropes. Don’t drown your counselors.”

It was a surreal experience. I had worked at this camp last summer, and back then, we were able to interact and play with the kids. We were able to hang out with other staff members without the fear of being infected or reprimanded for being too close to each other. Kids would gather around in big groups for large spirit days and celebrations. Now, those large groups are a moment of the past.

Violations of the accepted anti-coronavirus measures occurred all the time. People would sometimes forget to wear their masks or wear them improperly. Sometimes people would just decide that they would wash their hands later but forgot about it entirely. Social distancing would be forgotten about in the midst of a stupid conversation about the trees.

It wasn’t like we didn’t care about the virus. We all did. We knew what could happen if we didn’t follow through with the guidelines. But there was something in us that thought that one time wasn’t a problem. One time wouldn’t make a difference in the long run.

Fortunately, we were lucky; in our case, it didn’t affect us.

Six weeks of camp, and we had no cases of COVID-19. We had enough demand to get an extra week of camp for some of the kids. But when I think about it, it probably wasn’t just our precautions that protected us. The kids who came here had families that could afford to work from home or run off to their summer homes when the city’s cases began spiking. They were an incredibly privileged fraction of the students that would come back to schools. It is not surprising that they did not get sick.

Despite the success that my workplace had this summer, I’m still worried about going back to school. These kids were safe, but the schools in our city can’t afford to do what they did: daily screenings of every child and staff member, near-instantaneous COVID tests, getting enough sanitary items to clean areas off, etc.

Let’s look at what Stuyvesant is going to do for the incoming school year. About 300 kids will come each day and be separated into different “pods” of around 60-80 kids who would spend their day inside one specific room in the building. Essentially, instead of the small groups in an outdoor area that I witnessed this summer, students would be put in an enclosed area surrounded by many other children. While most of the staff at my workplace were young, in their teens and early 20s, this isn’t the case in our school. The staff is older and more at risk for serious complications from COVID-19. In the plan as of the time of this writing, personal protective equipment (PPE) isn’t a guarantee, as opposed to the PPE provided to all staff members at my camp.

Stuyvesant High School has a large proportion of its students qualified for reduced and free lunch. We are a school that has a significant working-class population. For the most part, the students here don’t have summer homes to run off to. Many of our parents work essential jobs and stand at risk for infection.

These children lived their summer camp dreams out in a bubble a few miles from White Plains. If everything goes horribly wrong, they can just jump over to another bubble.

We can’t.

On the last day of camp, some of the other guards and I waited until the kids were off the giant waterslides that stood on a field a short walk from the pool area. The luge specialists said that they could let us on it, just as long as we made it quick.

I ran up the stairs and pushed myself down. A quick turn, another sharp jolt, and suddenly, the plummet down into a strip of water.

I laughed, smiling up at my co-workers. “Hurry up! We got to go back in a few minutes!”

It felt fun. It felt normal. It felt as if this was a normal summer and not the hellhole it was.

It felt good.