SOUTH KINGSTOWN – By the time school lets out, most parents are dreaming about being able to send their kids away to summer camp — even if it’s only for a few hours a day.
But this year, despite being stuck inside with their children for the past several months and having to help out with distance learning assignments, the coronavirus outbreak may give some families pause for concern.
While case numbers are spiking in many parts of the country, Rhode Island is one of the only states reporting a decline in case numbers. The downward trend has not only allowed Gov. Gina Raimondo to relax guidelines and open up more sectors of the economy, but it’s also saving the summer.
In late May, the Rhode Island Department of Health announced new regulations and guidelines for summer camps, which were officially allowed to open this past Monday. These regulations include limiting stable group sizes to no more than 15 people, changing pick-up and drop-off procedures to prevent large groups from forming and requiring counselors and staff to wear face coverings throughout the day.
While camp may look slightly different this year, it’s the closest thing to normal that many children have experienced in months. The South Kingstown Parks and Recreation Summer Camps were able to welcome back 101 campers this week, according to Recreation Superintendent Cathy Larlham.
“The kids are excited,” she said. “I think the kids have been really excited to see friends from their school,” or friends they might not have seen since last year.
Welcoming back a score of campers between a range of six different camps has meant creating multiple stable groups — which can’t be switched up or changed during the week, and can’t come within 14 feet of others — but the logistics haven’t been too burdensome.
Sometimes programs are limited to 13 campers to allow for two counselors, but some smaller programs, like surf and skate boarding camps, have always had small camper to counselor ratios — allowing for more one-on-one instruction.
The Discovery Camp, now known as SK Rec on the Run, split their large enrollment into three groups of 10, according to Larlham.
Although the drop-off and pick-up guidelines had to be tweaked from location to location, helping to prevent large groups of campers or lines from forming, the health screening questions and thorough cleaning guidelines are the same at every campsite across town — from Tuckertown Park to the Neighborhood Guild.
Larlham believes that the guidelines and serious safety precautions being taken in South Kingstown allow parents to be much more welcoming to the idea of summer camp.
“I think parents have been very welcoming,” she said. “They understand the procedures we’re following with the self-screening, and for the indoor program they understand they can only bring their kids to the door.”
Some other solutions have been to give parents specific locations for pick-up and drop-off, or having camps adopt staggered arrival and departure times.
Unfortunately, following the guidelines and procedures has meant cutting back on the number of campers who can enroll this summer.
“That’s been a little sad for the kids who couldn’t get in, but those were the restrictions,” she said. “It was do that or don’t do camp.”
Many of the camp programs, like tennis, are offered for several weeks throughout the summer, though, according to Cathy.
So far, despite getting some rain, the first week of camp has been off to a great start.
“That didn’t spoil anyone’s fun,” Larlham said. “There’s been a lot of happy kids doing summer fun things outside.”
Many of the programs and activities are designed to have zero or low costs for kids and their familes, Larlham said, and there’s still a lot of things for them to look forward to this summer — like Stories and S’mores, Beach Blanket Bingo and craft classes on Wednesday afternoons.
Larlham is also excited about being able to offer the summer strings orchestra program, which kicked off on Thursday night with 44 participants.
“They’re going to be in all kinds of rooms, all spread out, following all the criteria, but back with our friends, back to doing things they love, being outside,” Larlham said. “We’re moving forward.”
The South County YMCA also kicked off their summer camp program on Monday, sharing very similar, reassuring guidelines on their website, like daily health screenings for all campers and staff, and stable groups of 15 or fewer including staff.
In some senses, things have really changed, according to Executive Director Tricia Driscoll, who came on board at South County YMCA in the midst of the pandemic.
“Our staff ratios have really doubled, we’re increasing cleaning and disinfecting, our staff are wearing masks — but kids are still enjoying a really great, safe, summer experience,” Driscoll said. “That hasn’t changed one bit.”
“We’re happy that we’re able to be open,” she added. “I think, certainly, for kids who’ve been doing distance learning, and families who’ve been distance learning, it’s been a long couple of months.”
Although the capacity is much more limited, Driscoll said the South County YMCA is grateful to be able to do what they can, and that families can feel confident in the guidelines and regulations in place.
Campers will need to bring their own lunch and snacks from home, and regular hand washing and personal hygiene will be encouraged for all campers and Y counselors.
The Rhode Island Department of Health is also requiring all staff and adult visitors to wear face covering throughout the day, but campers will not be required to wear masks.