Our Pandemic Summer: “Will ADHD Camps Be Open (and Safe) This Year?”

Is summer camp cancelled? Will programs enact new safety protocols? How will requirements change? Though many camps have announced 2020 cancellations, many others — including ADHD camps and other specialized programs — remain hopeful that local authorities will give them the green light to open with new safety guidelines. Here’s how camps are preparing for a different, but fun, summer.

Summer camp grounds

May 7, 2020

From California to Maine, summer is synonymous with camp — sleepaway camps, day camps, camps that focus on youth with specific needs and conditions, and everything in between — for about 20 million children and adults each year, according to the American Camp Association (ACA).

This year is different. With the pandemic — and stay-at-home orders varying so much state by state — families are wondering if ADHD camps will join the long list of “normal” life activities extinguished in 2020. The concern about summer cancellations is felt strongly among families who send their children to specialized camps, like those serving children with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and other conditions.

All camp programs aim to provide youth with fun, unforgettable experiences. But specialized camps, which are few and far in between, are built to accommodate each camper’s unique needs while also building critical skills in a fun environment. Different specialized camps — like Camp Sequoia, Camp Kodiak, or SOAR — offer structured programs to improve social skills, behavior, self-esteem, and academic development for youth with ADHD and comorbid diagnoses. They often act as lifelines that provide profound, formative moments in the development of a child with special needs.

“To my child, camp is everything,” one ADDitude reader wrote. “She already is sad enough, and I’d like her to feel a little happy this summer.”

While a quarter of respondents in a recent ADDitude survey are hoping to send their child to camp this summer, there’s an understandable hesitancy, too. “On one hand, she needs socializing, and I need a break,” a parent wrote. “On the other hand, I worry about the germs and other kids.”

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Is Summer Camp Cancelled?

Many camps across the country have already made the decision to call off summer programming. Many also remain hopeful that they will be able to physically and safely open at some limited capacity, and they are turning to federal and local authorities for information on how to do so.

The ACA, a nationwide accrediting organization that boasts more than 3,000 member camps, said camps are currently awaiting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with state and county public health authorities, on how camps could operate this summer.

In May, the federal agency is expected to release guidelines for day and overnight summer camps, which will likely inform how states and local boards of health lay out camp regulations, important dates, and rules for operation. Varied state and local approaches, however, are to be expected, especially considering states’ markedly different reopening frameworks and requirements.

“It will likely be a patchwork environment with the CDC guidance and state and local regulations at the core,” said the ACA, which is also releasing its own operations guide in partnership with the YMCA of the US to help camps implement any CDC recommendations. “That means each camp ultimately needs to make its own choices about camp this year.”

Indeed, the “patchwork” approach is evident in recent conversations with ADHD and other specialized camps.

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How Are Camps Preparing for the Summer?

While awaiting national and state guidance, most camps are creating or finalizing contingency plans, getting creative with virtual programming, and keeping hopeful campers updated along the way. Camps are largely anticipating significant drops in attendance — prompted by both occupancy limits and parental uncertainty. One thing’s for sure: no two camps have the same approach to this summer.

Ramping Up Health Checks and Limiting Exposure

With COVID-19 in mind, camps are bolstering their already stringent health protocols and standards and adding new measures. One such camp is SOAR.

SOAR, a multi-program camp and non-profit for children with ADHD and learning disabilities, is “hopeful and optimistic” that its programs in North Carolina, Wyoming, Florida, California, and elsewhere will continue this summer, albeit not as initially scheduled. “We canceled the first sessions in June, fearing that it may be too early for a realistic opening date,” said John Willson, SOAR’s executive director.

When and if later programs do run as hoped, the organization has laid out revised plans and health protocols. Health screenings are a mainstay at SOAR, but campers with flu-like symptoms prior to arrival will be forced to delay or cancel their camp plans. If a camper exhibits symptoms upon arrival, they will be asked to leave and allowed to return only with a physician’s all-clear, or they will quarantined on site and consult with a medical professional.

Campers who clear entry hurdles will participate in regular temperature readings and screenings for “respiratory distress.” The camp, which already operates its sessions in groups of 10, is also ensuring families that groups will not exceed this number. It will all but mandate and supervise hand washing at certain daily junctures, and increase sanitization of high-contact surfaces. Plans are also in place to keep campers and counselors safe if anyone at camp, including staff, is exposed to the illness while on site.

Summit Camp & Travel, a Pennsylvania-based organization that helps children develop social and executive function skills, has drafted stringent and detailed health protocols for its weeks-long summer sleep-away program. “We don’t have the luxury of being able to make a mistake, so we have to go through every single scenario,” said Shepherd Baum, director of the organization.

Summit will shut down non-essential traffic in and out of the 100-acre campus to decrease the likelihood of someone bringing the illness on site. This year, staff members will report to campus one month prior to the program’s start in late June, and counselors won’t be allowed to leave on their days off. Instead, they will stay in a building currently under construction on site. No mail or packages will be allowed — families may write to campers via emails that will be printed on site. Commercial washers and dryers will be installed, ending a practice of sending laundry out. Regular entertainment, like music groups and magicians, won’t be brought in this year, and trips to amusement parks and other outside areas are cancelled.

As at SOAR, campers will be screened by medical professionals upon arrival (rapid COVID-19 tests will be used, if available) and will be turned away if they are presenting symptoms. Parents won’t be allowed out of the car, and families must ship luggage to camp weeks prior to the first day.

Apart from campers and staff, “the only thing that will come on camp at all this summer are food deliveries,” Baum said. Even then, the camp is installing extra freezers so it can order more food at a time and avoid frequent deliveries.

Bringing Camp Online

Joining classrooms and extra-curricular lessons, camping and outdoor education is going virtual as well.

Ohio’s Camp Nuhop, which offers year-round outdoor learning programs for local schools and hosts a summer camp for children diagnosed with ADHD, ASD, and learning disabilities, has created a free “at home” outdoor education website with dozens of interactive videos on topics like “backyard phenology,” invasive species, wilderness survival, and even mindfulness in nature.

While the website was created as a way to reach local students following stay-at-home orders, it has now reached viewers in more than 50 countries. “It’s been this fascinating, daily unfolding of who discovers us,” said Matthew Broda, a professor of education at the nearby College of Wooster who worked with Camp Nuhop to create the lessons.

The lessons are designed to be done in backyards, or any chunk of accessible green space, with “kinesthetic engagement” at the core, according to Trevor Dunlap, the camp’s executive director. “When we think about the kids that we have the privilege of serving, a lot of those kids learn by doing,” he said.

The nonprofit is working to release more educational videos before the end of the school year. Soon after, it anticipates opening its residential camp for a truncated summer season.

Other camps are using the web to foster a sense of connection with new and returning campers, families, and staff. “We’re doing virtual tours and connecting parent groups with each other,” said Brian Lux, director of the Pennsylvania-based Camp Sequoia, a social skills summer camp for boys, many of whom have ADHD. “Our camp kids, old and new, are also getting together now for virtual campfires.”

How Are Camps Dealing with Cancellations? Will I Get My Money Back?

Camps are not approaching refunds and cancellations the same. Generally, campers may choose to receive a partial or full refund, roll their payment to another session, or give the funds to the camp as a tax-deductible donation, if it’s a nonprofit.

SOAR, for example, is offering full refunds and deposits to campers whose selected summer session is cancelled. Summer sessions cover several days or weeks, and range from $2,000 to $5,600 depending on the length of the stay. Campers also have until mid-June to cancel and reclaim their tuition, minus the deposit. Campers, though, appear hopeful and eager for programming to continue, even if at a later time. “The good news is we have not had a lot of cancellations,” said Willson.

Full refunds, however, may be the exception rather than the rule, especially as all businesses are looking for ways to stay afloat during the pandemic.

“If a camp had to give refunds to everybody I don’t know if they can do it,” said Baum, whose summer programs at Summit Camp & Travel span several weeks and cost $2,500 to $7,195. Still, Baum, like others, is working on a case-by-case basis, even for families that wish to send their child to camp but may not have the means now. “If I have to offer a camper a scholarship, even if we utilized all our funds, I’m going to make that call,” he said.

Should I Send My Child to ADHD Camp This Summer?

The decision is difficult and deeply personal. Camps are well-aware of fears and concerns regarding health, finances, and more — some have outright cancelled the summer 2020 session because of them. But the camps that still hope to open have reason to believe that, in terms of health and safety, the kids will be alright.

Specialized camps, for one, tend to serve fewer campers than do traditional summer programs. With potential changes in occupancy limits and drops in enrollment expected, these camps believe social distancing will be easier to maintain. The outdoor, open-air aspect of camp also helps.

Camps, especially ones that go beyond state licensing and obtain ACA accreditation, already operate with health and cleanliness at the foundation. Cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces? Medical screenings? Existing relationships with local medical professionals? “A lot of the things that are being adopted by necessity are things that are part of our fabric,” said Lux, whose social skills camp boards two children to a room, and has on staff one nurse for every 20 campers.

As this pandemic wears on, many organizations and parents believe that summer camp, even with modifications, is more important now than ever for children who have been confined to their homes and socially isolated for months. “We’re anticipating that it’s going to be a great summer,” said Lux. “There will be changes, because the world’s a little bit different than it was last summer — we’d be foolish not to be prepared for things to look a little bit different.”

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