HAMMONTON — Every summer since 2016, Lisa and Sam Seitles have welcomed hundreds of local children to their day camp on Chew Road for days filled with friends, crafts and other activities.
But as COVID-19 caused the shutdown of schools and daycare centers, how and when they would reopen Camp Tuscaloosa became uncertain.
A day after Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing these camps to open July 6, the state released guidelines Tuesday on how the day camps can operate. Now, summer camps around the region are making the decision on whether to open, offer virtual camp or close for the season, and parents must decide whether they will send their children.
The new guidelines require cloth face coverings be worn by staff members and campers when social distancing of 6 feet between assigned groups cannot be maintained, but not for children under 2 or when it would be a danger to a person’s health, such as in extreme heat or water.
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In addition, health screenings will be required daily, and camps must try to keep the same staff and campers together each day, with mixing between groups restricted. Residential and overnight camps, off-site activities, field trips, contact sports and intergroup competitions are prohibited.
For the Seitleses, they were already optimistically preparing for the season and will open.
“It’s a lot of work, but all we wanted was to give these kids the best summer ever,” Lisa Seitles said.
Lisa Seitles is expecting a lower turnout than in years past when they have had between 100 and 180 campers a day.
“We’re opening no matter what, whether we got 30 kids a day or 150 kids a day. We’re going to open because people need us,” Lisa Seitles said.
“We are beyond motivated. This is our passion, but at this point right now we want to give these kids a summer they’re never going to forget,” Sam Seitles added.
Jen Domsic, of Marmora in Upper Township, is glad her 10- and 7-year-old children will have some camp this summer. Her children are signed up for a surf camp in Ocean City, but soccer camp is up in the air and sleep-away camp is canceled.
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“I feel like our kids have missed out on so much social interaction. We’ve done everything to flatten the curve and follow the rules,” Domsic said. “They’ve missed out on so many opportunities that they take for granted, and I’m just grateful that we’re able to do camp.”
As stated in the governor’s executive order, one of the state’s main considerations in opening camps this summer was to provide another option for New Jersey families in need of child care services.
Lynette Fraga, CEO of Child Care Aware of America, said reopening child care centers and summer camps will be critical to restarting the economy in New Jersey and throughout the nation.
Her organization has a list of questions parents should ask their camps and child care providers as they reopen to ensure communication and safety, including how they will enforce social distancing and whether any COVID-19 cases have been found at the facility.
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“Summer camps, just like school, frankly, during the school year, play a critical role in being a child care setting for parents when they return to work,” Fraga said. “What’s challenging, regardless of whether we name the summer care as camps or child care, is having the ability to open that care. Families are going to be very challenged, and there will be barriers for them to return to work.”
Child Care Aware is pushing for federal legislation that would increase funding for child care centers and camps. Some funding was included in the federal stimulus bill in response to COVID-19, and the state has also announced grant funding for child care centers and camps though the Department of Human Services to purchase additional cleaning products, personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and thermometers, and other products and services to assist centers in complying with appropriate guidelines.
For the Linwood-based Amazinators organization, holding its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) Camp in person was not possible due to the guidelines. Instead, they will go virtual this summer, although the details are still being sorted out, said teacher Cindy O’Kane, who runs the camp with friends and teachers Jennifer Bernardini and Gina Wenzel.
“The main issue for us is that the whole screening process, the way you have to keep kids in isolated groups, it’s just not how our camp works,” O’Kane said.
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The two-week camps held at Mainland Regional High School and in Margate usually have a combined 60 campers on average and are held inside schools and community buildings. O’Kane said they decided they were better off going virtual this summer, and about one-third of the participants who signed up in the winter are coming back this summer.
“A lot of parents are concerned that maybe their kids need the academics that we provide, especially in light of how school has gone. We’re trying to provide a fun, interactive way that we always do with camp,” O’Kane said. “We didn’t want a summer to go by that we didn’t provide them with something.”
Still, some area camps have decided to take a year off, finding the timing, cost and guidelines too prohibitive.
Camp Cape May, a municipal day camp, will not open this summer. The camp, which usually runs eight weeks starting in mid-June, serves between 80 and 100 kids each season.
“It’s very unfortunate for what’s happening this year, but we had to keep in mind the safety, first, and that’s what we pride ourselves in,” said Laurie Taylor, the city’s director of marketing. “It’s sad because we consider it our extended family.”
Taylor said that under the guidelines, the city would have had to relocate the campers, and the cost of additional supplies would have increased the cost for families. She said the timing also left little time to recruit employees, who had already found other summer work.
“We just felt it was in the best interest in the campers and the counselors that we did not run the camp,” Taylor said.