ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The upcoming summer will be the second one on which the COVID-19 pandemic has an effect on nearly all aspects of our daily lives.   

Pods, social distancing, masks, remote learning, hybrid schedules, cohorts, hand sanitizers, quarantining, capacity limits and Zoom are all words that have come to define children’s daily lives. 

As more adults become eligible for vaccinations, the desired herd immunity may eventually be reached, but until life can return to what used to be, are the kids alright?

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The educators new acronym this year became “SEL” – social and emotional learning.  If a child is not emotionally safe and socially engaged, can they really learn, absorb and question presented material?  For those who are old enough to have mastered social skills, are they regressing and losing those necessary social skills?

Frustrated parents who wish for their children to return to live instruction have become organized and lawsuits are being filed across the state with the goal of school districts expanding live instruction and returning to some semblance of normalcy for the children before another school year ends.  The expected remote learning gap will most likely take a long time to close through remediation efforts, however the need for the children to socialize and interact is also very much a priority. 

In a short time, school-issued Chromebooks will be turned off, but what happens next?  Last summer, very few camps were opened as criteria and guidelines from the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) were ever-changing, extremely restrictive and costly.  Day camps that normally offered transportation were not able to comply with the social distancing measures to economically allow for camps to transport the campers. 

Most day camps ultimately did not open, sleep-away camps were not operational, boutique camps specializing in specific activities couldn’t open their doors and most municipal day camps run by local departments of recreation also were not open.

However, as the summer of 2021 approaches the opportunities for the children to attend camp for the first time since 2019 is taking shape and plans are formulating amongst camp directors and owners. The NJDOH, which has yet to update camp operators instructions for the upcoming summer, issued the following on its website: “Youth Camp Operators: The Program is currently planning for the upcoming 2021 summer camp season. At this time, the youth camp application form is under revision and cannot be submitted. These revisions are necessary to update the information on the application and to assist in streamlining the submittal to the Department. The revisions should be completed in the next few weeks. The youth camp website will be updated with the new application once it’s finalized.”

The notification continues: “Although Executive Order 149 remains in effect for the operation of youth camps, the Program anticipates changes for the upcoming season. The Program is reviewing the Youth Camp COVID Standards in anticipation for the resumption of overnight camps as well as any revisions to reflect current Executive Order requirements. Any new information and updates to the guidance or Executive Order will be posted on our website. Thank you for your patience, and we look forward to a fun and healthy 2021 youth camp season!”

Although specific instructions have not been disseminated, plans are being made that barring any significant impact to the positivity rates the camps will be operating. Camp workers are considered childcare providers and therefore have become eligible to be vaccinated. Many teachers who have already been given the green light to be vaccinated work at camps during the summer, so they too are vaccinated.

The borough of Roseland is unique in that it did operate its municipal day camp during the summer of 2020 and plans to do so again this summer. Mayor James R. Spango made it a priority of his administration to open the borough’s summer program. He said, “It was important for our community to keep things as close to normal as possible while maintaining the safety protocols. It was also important to get our youth to have social interaction after being on lockdown for an extended period of time. The response from the community was overwhelming. They were thankful and impressed with the camp.”

In order to comply with social distancing requirements, Spango confirmed that the number of campers for children in grades 1-9 were capped at 135 and the camp was shortened by one week due to restrictions on capacity. Groups had a decreased counselor to camper ratio than previous years, and temperatures were scanned daily for both staff and campers. 

“We did utilize COVID funding to purchase equipment to sanitize our areas and parks," Spango noted. "I believe the protocols will be less than last year but based on what we purchased using CARES Act money we are prepared to implement the same protocols with little financial impact on the cost of camp. The guidelines were very challenging but necessary to ensure the safety of our campers and staff.”

West Caldwell recreation department will be opening their doors this summer for the first time since 2019. Andrew Pollara, program supervisor of the recreation department, confirmed the camp will be in session from June 28-Aug. 5. The camp provides activities for hundreds of children from Caldwell and West Caldwell including the Tot Lot activities for young children who are four and five years old to a program for children from the first grade through eighth grade. The camp operates during “sunshine only” and tentatively is scheduled to take place in four sites across the township. Because of COVID-19, unlike other years, there will be no day trips planned and training for staff will be a priority. Pollara emphasized the need for the children to socially interact as paramount while maintaining all necessary safety precautions.

Many municipal recreation departments intend to operate their summer camps this year.  The Springfield Township Committee approved an agreement on March 23 with the Summit Area YMCA to operate the Springfield Community Pool and registration for pool camp began March 29.  The Springfield Pool Camp will run from June 28 – August 27, offering a full day from 9 a.m-4 p.m., for campers ages 5-10. 

North Caldwell is also planning to open their doors to campers this summer and confirmed on their website that “all health guidelines from the CDC and local Health Departments will be followed throughout the duration of all camps.”   

Cedar Grove’s summer recreation program will be opened as well. Its website confirms, “Our Summer Playground programs will meet and/or exceed the guidelines set forth by the Governor as well as the CDC to comply with COVID-specific health and safety protocols. Our staff will be masked at all times. They will also have their temperatures taken and logged each day.”  Camp will run from June 28-July 30 with programs such as the Tot Lot, Elementary Camp, in addition to multiple sports programs.  The camps will be held outdoors and closed during inclement weather; registrations have begun.

In addition to municipal camps other options include private camps. Locally, the “Best Summer Camp in Caldwell” is making plans for the summer. Campers from Caldwell, West Orange, Livingston, Verona, and Montclair attend the summer program, many of whom attend the facility’s martial arts school during the remainder of the year. The campers range in age from 5 through 12 and offers early drop off and late pick up as well. The director confirmed that due to social distancing guidelines the camp will be running at half capacity this summer but offers their program from June 28-Sept. 3.  Children will remain in the same cohort for the summer to limit exposures, and it is anticipated that the cohorts will allow the children to form stronger bonds as they experience activities including, sports, dance, drama and tumbling.

For years, day camps have been a home away from home that children who have attended have formed bonds with camp friends and look forward to seeing once again. Northern New Jersey has a large offering of day camps that children have attended year after year.  To name just a few of the camps that are making plans to welcome back the children this summer are: Meadowbrook Day Camp, Harbor Hills, YMCA Camps, Jeff Lake Camp, Pioneer Trails Day Camp, JCC Camp Denny Riback, Willow Lake Day Camp, Fresh Air Fund Camps, Harbor Haven, Tamarack Day Camp and Horizon Day Camp. It has been reported that wait lists for camps are growing as parents try to sign up their children.