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Parents grapple with decision regarding kids

Kids learning remotely all spring are looking forward to guitar-led singalongs, tug-of-rope tournaments, swimming lessons and all the screen-free idylls that epitomize summer camp.

For parents who’ve been juggling work with child care, paying to have their school-aged brethren warming in front of a crackling campfire after a lakeside dip is an expense worth a billion sighs of relief.

But the storm clouds of coronavirus hovers over these beloved summer rites. Day or residential camps aren’t going to look the same, says Ken Robbins, who runs Camp Kabeyun in Alton Bay and presides over the NH Camp Directors Association. For starters, says Robbins, camps will step up their screening procedures, cleaning and disinfecting protocols. He says camp directors are also awaiting guidelines by May 15 from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to determine what other measures to implement.

Meanwhile, many families are wondering if summer camps will be yet another casualty of COVID-19. Will they close the doors, shorten the seasons or delay their openings?

Bette Bussel, executive director of the American Camp Association, New England, says the majority of camps are in a wait-and-see mode.

However, some parents like Valerie Washer of Keene have made up their minds: exposure to staff and other kids is not worth the risk. “I know where we go; I know what we do,” she says. “I don’t know who everybody else has contact with.”

A single mother of a six and nine-year-old, Washer says her kids ride their bikes and explore the back woods with a neighbor’s kids, some of whom are cousins, while she works from home.

It is this type of small group structure that Joseph Manzoli, chief operating officer at the YMCA of Greater Nashua, wants to replicate this summer.

The Y runs several day camps in Merrimack and Nashua. Manzoli says the staff will continue “treating each of these groups like a family.” Kids will stay in a unit with a counselor, eat lunch with their groups and avoid mingling with other family groups.

He envisions that each day, children and staff receive a temperature check. Parents will report on family members who had contact with anyone who is sick. Parents will also stay in their cars during drop-offs or pick-ups.

“It’s an imperfect system,” acknowledges Manzoli, because at the end of the day, the Y can no longer monitor campers’ interactions. Plus, testing for fevers doesn’t reveal the asymptomatically infected.

Restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 vary from state to state and are evolving rapidly in concert with scientists’ understanding of the disease. Yet against this uncertainty, working families count on summer camps to keep kids happy in a safe environment.

Manzoli speculates that demand for camps will exceed the capacity. Camp Sargent, which sits on 22 acres in Merrimack, usually houses 400 kids, but Manzoli says this year it has to limit that number to maintain social distance.

The American Camp Association (ACA) and the YMCAs of the United States (Y-USA) are collaborating with a Boston-based consulting firm, Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. (EH&E), to provide a field guide for day and overnight camps, state and local health departments, campers and their families. EH&E is using input from specialists in pediatric medicine, camp medicine and nursing, epidemiology and infectious disease management to produce this resource.

“The country is going to have to be nimble and innovative in how we offer camp in a safe and healthy way,” says Manzoli. As people go back to work in their offices, they’ll seek care for their kids. “And so camps are critical.”

Sybil Green of Keene paid the full tuition to secure slots with the city’s recreational program for her seven- and nine-year-old. “They’re really looking forward to it,” she says. “But it’s also probably the least safe camp for them to go to because it’s pretty much teenage counselors and a lot of kids.”

A registered nurse and her children’s sole caregiver, Green audits medical records remotely for a home health agency. “If I’m still allowed to work from home [this summer], they’re going to be home with me.”

Summer goes virtual

Since 2018, the Greater Nashua Y has run the Powers Scholars Academy with the Nashua School District, a national summer program developed by the YMCA and BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) to prevent economically disadvantaged kids from falling behind in school. The program blends literacy and math instruction with field trips and hands-on activities to introduce kids to trades such as culinary arts, woodworking, robotics and cosmetology.

More than 400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade attend the five-week program housed in three of the district’s schools. In the afternoons, students play outside or swim in pools. To prepare for this year, Manzoli is speaking with community partners such as churches or local colleges, in case the school buildings can’t open.

Organizers behind the Academy are also preparing BellXcel-Remote, a package of both paper-based and online pursuits that families receive as a kit, according to Brenda McLaughlin, the program’s key strategizer. She says teachers walk through different projects through phone calls or video chats, depending on what technology is available.

“We want to make sure that the teacher and the young person form a relationship,” she says. A teacher will read a story out loud and then ask questions about the characters. Then the children have what McLaughlin calls a “brain break,” where children count how many times they can hop on one foot; or they may build an obstacle course in their backyard or house. The idea, say McLaughlin, is to give youthful minds five minutes to recharge.

After months on lockdowns with laptops, kids need to move and get outside. Built into the program, for example, is an activity where young students identify letters with specific exercises, such as jogging in place or lunging, and then spell out their first names with the associated exercises.

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