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Can Summer Camps Provide a Model for Reopening Schools?

While many schools have opted to be virtual, for some communities, moving online just isn't an option. With no clear process in place to keep schools open, they have scrambled to find best practices. Many have identified a model that has proven to work from an unlikely source: summer day camps.

One camp came up with the gold standard model for how to operate in-person during a pandemic. At Laurus Summer Camp in Montreal, Quebec, they completed a 9 week day camp program that supported over 1000 campers across 5 different sites. All without one single COVID-19 case.

Now, schools are turning to Laurus Summer Camp to implement their best practices in hopes to keep in-person schooling going in a safe and healthy way.

Laurus Summer Camp

Laurus is a lifestyle camp, with five locations in Quebec, Canada, running in the summer since 2012. The staff plans for the camp year-round; however, this past March, everything was suddenly up in the air.

On the last Friday of May, Quebec announced that summer camps could reopen: “We just kind of assumed it wasn’t happening this year, and then suddenly that was announced, and we had 5 weeks to plan the camp!” said Laurus Head of Staff, Bailey Roy.


“That weekend I went over all of the government of Quebec’s guidelines that they posted for camps reopening. I went through 150 pages of guidelines, took notes, came up with a process and a list of all the things we need to and all the procedures we need to follow. Normally we would have a team of three that would plan the camp’s reopening and activities year-round, but this year, since we only had five weeks, we brought together a team of fifteen senior counselors and higher-up camp staff to help us plan.”

Director of Camp Operations Alex Hiscox said, “I don’t know how everything got done on time, but it did. First, we had to get all of our COVID-19 procedures on the website, send out our welcome packages reiterating our procedures, and set up expectations for the summer. Then, we were trying very hard to keep open communication lines with the parents, because they had so many questions,” she said.

[Laurus Summer Camp: Covid-19 Operating Procedures]

Adapting Practices

“We had to cut some of our specific training program (STA) activities, such as cooking. We also required a way higher camper-to-counselor ratio, and strict sanitation and social distancing precautions between the kids (which was difficult to get them to follow) as well as the counselors,” said Bailey.

A week in, they also started making counselors wear masks when indoors. “Wearing the mask meant they didn’t get a chance to forget about COVID-19, and it even made hand-washing and distancing habits a lot better,” Bailey explained.

As a day camp, they faced a situation similar to the one schools are facing: “The challenge was that we could only control what happened inside the camp, we couldn’t fully control what was going on after hours or on the weekends outside,” said Alex.

“One of our key driving success factors was the setting of expectations with our families. We told them, ‘this is how we’re going to operate on the inside, but this is what’s expected of you,’” added Alex. “Every morning they had their daily triage questions, making sure that they weren’t around anyone with symptoms, and if they had even minor indications of symptoms they were sent back to go get tested.”

Key Learnings

“For me, what was difficult to navigate was that every single person on the planet has a different view of how COVID-19 should be handled. Some people want to return to regular life, and others are very scared. And it’s very hard to please everyone,” said Alex.

“And that was what we realized, literally on the second day of camp. We had some families telling us ‘these are kids, let them have fun, you’re way too strict,’ and then there were other families that were worried and saying ‘you’re in the epicentre of Canada for the virus, how can you not be more strict than this?’”

“And we found it important to remember they’re not the ones who did all the research, and they don’t know the location and the infrastructure of our buildings, or that we do have the best intentions for everyone. And I would say, overall, parents absolutely loved our camp, we didn’t have anyone pull their kids out because of our procedures,” Alex added.

“This year taught me the importance of standing your ground. In previous years, we used to look at parents as our clients, we had the mindset of ‘customers that are always right,’ but this year our mindset was more like, ‘yes, but safety is more important,” said Bailey.

Takeaways for School Leaders:

  1. Stay optimistic. There’s a lot of problem solving, and you might always feel one or two steps behind. But sometimes you might find unconventional solutions to the problems at hand.”
  2. You don’t know what’s to come. We had no idea if camps were going to get shut down altogether halfway through the summer but we still prepared as much as possible, and figured out what works.”
  3. Don’t compare yourself too much to other locations, or other places, because there’s so many factors that come into place when you're dealing with COVID. Just the smallest things like how many sinks you have, how far apart your toilets are, etc. It’s just about doing what works best for your location.”

[U.S. CDC: Guidelines for Youth & Summer Camps]
[U.S. CDC: Preparing for a Safe Return to School and Operating Schools]

Caveats and Constraints

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran a story about a camp in Georgia that had to shut down within a week. Later, they also highlighted four Maine camps that were more successful in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. What was striking was that the results were drastically different for these camps, even when both sets of camps took some (but not all) of the same precautions.

If we look at summer camps as a microcosm for schools hoping to reopen (or stay open), we can learn a lot — most notably, how complicated it can all be. The biggest caveat to the comparison, is that following long lists of safety precautions is easier for summer camps (and even that doesn’t insure them against having to close again). Laurus Summer Camp and others such as the ones in Maine were astonishingly successful, but it is clear school is a completely different kettle of fish.

“It’s probably more achievable at the camp level because you have significantly smaller numbers of individuals that are involved in the process,” said Bertha Hidalgo, a PhD epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, about the CDC’s camp studies. Achieving the “bubble” of summer camps would be difficult in public schools, where other factors come into play, such as community transmission rates, availability of government funding, and staff needs and safety.

Although remote learning continues to be the safer option for continuing education in the foreseeable future, the learnings from camps and other smaller-scale childcare programs are specifically important for the reopening of schools for smaller groups of students with special needs, or students in kindergarten through grade five facing alarming learning losses.

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