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Lack of summer camps could hurt working parents, disappoint kids

Camp Twin Lakes, which offers camping for children with developmental disabilities and medical issues, is one of many summer camps whose plans have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. CONTRIBUTED
Camp Twin Lakes, which offers camping for children with developmental disabilities and medical issues, is one of many summer camps whose plans have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. CONTRIBUTED

Summer camps, long a ritual of fun and learning and a mainstay for working parents, will be in short supply this year as Georgia reopens for business amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Many camps will not open and some are moving online for at least the first part of summer.

“If they say tomorrow ‘everybody come to the office,’ I’m in a really tight spot,” said Quachell Peele, 29, a single Atlanta mom with a 7-year-old daughter. She is the sole technology support employee in her office, and pulled long hours equipping personnel when the company sent them home in March. Peele’s ex-husband had been laid off from his restaurant job, so he was available to watch their daughter. Peele said he’ll likely be returning to work before she does, though, eliminating that option.

There are 1.8 million public school students in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Education, and about half are in sixth grade or under, and will need adult supervision. Under Georgia guidelines, children under 13 cannot stay home alone all day.

The main organization that advocates for summer camp operators says most appear to be offering only virtual programs for at least the first half of summer, a trend that is growing.

Scarcity of masks, disinfectant and other supplies now considered essential for business has driven these decisions, said Katie Landes, director of the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network. There are also concerns about unclear safety guidelines.

“They still all have a lot of questions, and they’re trying to figure this out,” said Landes, who speaks weekly with 80 to 120 operators. About a quarter had tentative plans to open, she said last week. More were up in the air, brainstorming alternatives. “Even though summer’s right around the corner,” she said, “a lot of them have plans A, B, C and D.”

Since then, several big organizations have canceled.

The Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta, in a decision affecting 3,000 girls, announced Monday that all in-person camps are eliminated through Aug. 9. CEO Amy Dosik said her organization consulted a leaked copy of a safety guidance document that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has drafted. It offers recommendations for reopening in three phases in communities with “low” levels of COVID-19 spread and where the incidence of infection is believed to be “genuinely low.”

“We did not feel we were even in phase 1 of that guidance,” Dosik told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She said her group lacked confidence in the numbers reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health, in part because the agency has appended asterisks to its figures, with fine print that alludes to missing or invalid dates to explain inconsistent reporting of the infection and death numbers and that says intensive care admissions could be underreported. Even if accurate, the numbers are worrisome, she said. “We’re still seeing a high number of case counts every day.”

Also Monday, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta canceled camps in June, while the Alliance Theatre in Midtown Atlanta told parents Friday that online camp would be substituted for in-person sessions.

Alan Mothner, CEO of the Spruill Center for the Arts in Dunwoody, had planned until Tuesday afternoon to open as normal in late May. He finally concluded there were too many unanswered questions about how to operate safely, though. What if no disinfectant is available at the supermarket? How would they ensure the space they lease from the city wasn’t infected by some other group using the building? What if the hand sanitizer runs out midweek or a parent wanders into a restricted room, violating protocols? Does everything shut down?

Last week, Mothner had said he was expecting high demand from parents, especially those trying to work at home, and was hard at work himself developing safety plans with his team. At a staff meeting Tuesday afternoon, however, camp was canceled until at least June 21. “The consensus among our staff was we are just not comfortable,” Mothner said, adding that he’d seen the same draft CDC document as Dosik. “None of these questions are definitively answered in the documentation,” he said.

The CDC did not immediately respond to queries Tuesday about the status of that guidance document.

Operators normally need weeks to hire and train employees, and the safety preparations for the pandemic will extend that, which raises the pressure to make a decision soon.

Last week, Zoo Atlanta, the Atlanta Area Council, Boy Scouts of America and some county recreation departments were still undecided, and had not sent updates to the AJC as of Tuesday.

“Right now, we haven’t made any decisions,” Derrell Walker, the manager of Cobb County’s recreational program, said Thursday. “Of course, things are changing daily.”

Camp Twin Lakes, which offers outdoor experiences for 3,600 children with developmental disabilities and medical issues, has canceled through most of June. Chief Operating Officer Dan Mathews said children who come in the first part of summer have heart defects and other medical issues that make exposure to the coronavirus too risky. Students with fewer medical issues attend for the second half, but he’s unwilling to hold camp then either if necessary precautions, such as masks and smaller gatherings, undermine the experience, which is meant to build community.

“We are awaiting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control for July,” Mathews said. “We’re hoping they’ll come up with something soon.”

Fulton County Schools has also called off in-person summer school for at least the first half of summer, closing its buildings to any summer camp operators. Employees, including custodians, were fearful of infection, Superintendent Mike Looney said.

The second half of the summer will be either online, in-person or a mix, depending upon whether COVID-19 cases spike, he said.

“That’s going to be contingent on social-distancing standards and whatever guidance we may or may not receive from higher authorities,” Looney said.

Alex Wan, a former Atlanta city councilman, runs a summer camp for low-income students that operates on the campuses of private schools and universities. Nine of 10 of those facilities told him they didn’t want his Horizons Atlanta students on their campuses, so he has canceled those. So most of the program’s 1,150 children will instead get online camp, plus packages with science projects.

Wan said he is disappointed but also relieved, since many of his teachers are older and at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

Camps that do open will have to adapt to social-distancing requirements, which could prove expensive and difficult to implement. Catherine Hendrix, who coordinates a summer program for Bulloch County Schools in East Georgia, canceled on Thursday. The cost of frequently swabbing down and disinfecting the school building seemed prohibitive, she said, if she could even find the supplies given the high demand and resulting shortages.

The ultimate question for many was whether enough paying parents would come to make the cost worthwhile.

Many, such as Leah Farrell-Carnahan, will keep working from home. The Atlanta psychologist, who takes clients on the TeleHealth platform, pulled her daughter from her academic and arts camps. She is worried about another wave of coronavirus patients overwhelming hospitals, and wants to see a more vigorous public health response, with more testing and more tracking of the infected.

“There are a lot of unknowns right now, and I feel it’s my civic duty to be as conservative as possible — because I can,” she said.

Some may not have that choice, though.

Peele, the single Atlanta mother of a 7-year-old, has taken sheltering in place seriously, venturing out only for groceries. If her employer calls her back to the office, though, she will have to find a camp that is open. If she succeeds, she will worry about what could happen.

“If I get sick, there’s no one to take care of my child,” Peele said, “and if she gets sick, I can’t work.”