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Summer camp is back in session, under new pandemic safety guidelines

MARYLAND HEIGHTS — Hula hoops, jump ropes and pool noodles are popular this year at summer camps that have opened under pandemic safety guidelines.

“They’re good tools for social distancing,” said Kevin Munie, sports and camp director at the Edward Jones Family YMCA in Maryland Heights.

St. Louis city and county leaders announced in late May that day camps could begin this month under guidelines issued by the American Camp Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was too late for some local organizations, including the St. Louis Zoo and the Science Center, that had already canceled camps for the summer and gave families the option of donating their tuition or getting a refund. Others like the Center of Creative Arts, or COCA, had started offering alternatives including virtual programming or take-home camp kits.

Not everyone is comfortable sending their kids to camp, where it can be challenging to keep them from touching and breathing on each other. Some families have hired college students, whose jobs or internships were canceled, to watch their children and keep their circle of outside contacts smaller.

Those camps that are opening — including several YMCA branches, Boys and Girls Clubs and Vetta Sports — offer a preview of what school might look like in the fall. Parents drop off and pick up children in the parking lots, with no visitors allowed in the buildings. Temperatures are taken and anyone over 100.4 degrees is sent home. All staff members and campers older than 9 wear masks. Campers are separated into small groups, and they will stay with the same kids and counselors all summer. No field trips, no overnight camps and, for now, no use of swimming pools.

About 72 campers showed up June 8 for the first week of day camp at the Maryland Heights YMCA, where the maximum enrollment under the new guidelines is 86. In a typical summer without capacity restrictions, about 175-200 kids ages 5 to 13 attend each week. Across the region, the YMCA expects to host about half of its typical 10,000 campers this summer.

“The kids have been adapting really well, getting to know each other better,” said counselor James Irwin, 25, who teaches at Hazelwood West Middle School during the school year. “To socialize is really beneficial at this age.”

Camp counselors are encouraged to keep their charges outside as much as possible, where the virus is less likely to spread. They’re getting creative by inventing activities including pool noodle tag instead of capture the flag. They hope that some restrictions will ease later in the summer — particularly the use of the swimming pool, which would typically take up a 2-hour chunk of the day at YMCA camp.

There are 14,000 summer camps across the U.S., according to the American Camp Association. Most are day camps that are trying to operate under local public health rules. But some are at risk of closing permanently under the restrictions, especially those that aren’t affiliated with national groups like the YMCA and those that are hosted on college campuses, industry experts said.

With early indications that children are not at high risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19, many families have been eager to have somewhere to go since schools shut down in mid-March to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“Parents couldn’t get their kids out of the car fast enough,” said Laurie McTearnen, vice president of child care services at the Gateway Region YMCA. “Engagement and interaction with others” is necessary, she said, for strong, healthy kids.

{span style=”background-color: #ffffff;”}Emily Koenig said she feels comfortable sending her 6-year-old daughter to the Carondelet Family YMCA in south St. Louis for{span style=”background-color: #ffffff;”} day camp, and that the social and emotional benefits were a deciding factor.

“Children need structure, routine and play, and with two parents working it was very difficult to balance work with the needs of our family,” Koenig said. “The YMCA has done a great job in communicating with families their plans around the safety guidelines.”

Since closing in March because of the pandemic, the Magic House children’s museum in Kirkwood has added virtual birthday parties and other experiences for members. The museum reopens Monday to visitors and has welcomed campers since the beginning of June.

“After so many months of children stuck in their own homes, it’s been wonderful for them to branch out safely and be able to play and have some fun but also continue learning,” said Carrie Hutchcraft of the Magic House.

The museum added classroom space for campers to spread out in smaller groups. Kids work at opposite ends of 6-foot tables and get their own bucket of supplies. Instead of experiencing a showcase at the end of the week, parents can visit a photo-sharing app to see what their kids are doing, Hutchcraft said.

“We had a lot of families reaching out, begging us not to cancel camp,” she said. “Summer camp is such an important part of so many families’ lives to keep their kids busy and active, and we’re just thrilled that we were able to make the accommodations.”

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