Newton high school junior Matan Kruskal has been struggling with the weeks of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak, but he had a reward on the horizon: a summer trip to Israel that promised a chance to connect with other Jewish teenagers from around the world.
The trip was supposed to be the culmination of a year’s worth of work with the Diller Teen Fellows, an international leadership program for Jewish teens. But the program cancelled the trip because of COVID-19. Kruskal said when he found out, he cried.
“This thing in Israel was kind of a light at the end of the tunnel for me. It was the one thing I was looking forward to, and unsurprisingly, when it was cancelled I was completely crushed,” Kruskal said.
Every year, millions of families enroll their children in a summer camp. There are more than 14,000 camps in the United States, according to a 2017 report by the American Camp Association. Families around the country, and in Massachusetts, are now contending with the cancellation of these programs due to the pandemic.
Camp leaders say the cancellations threaten the unique educational opportunities that summer programs offer kids, and parents say the uncertainty is nerve-wracking. Some don’t know how they will balance childcare and work without the programs they were counting on. Others — especially those whose children are living with disabilities or medical issues — say camp is a lifeline for their kids, one that would be challenging to miss out on.
Many camps are still debating whether to open this year. Bette Bussel, executive director of the American Camp Association’s New England chapter, said she expects more programs to finalize their plans once the CDC releases its guidelines for camps, which is expected in the next few days. The association has already hired a consulting firm specializing in environmental health to advise programs on how to implement social distancing and other protective measures.
Bussel said she hopes many summer programs will be able to move forward as planned.
“Camp is really integral to young people's development. So we are hopeful that the 2020 camp season can happen, but also recognize there is much uncertainty right now and so everything isn't in our control,” she said.
The 2020 camp season won't be happening for Dedham resident Isadora Howard-Karp's 12-year-old daughter, who is deaf. She has attended Camp Isola Bella in Salisbury, Conn., for the past two summers.
A sleepaway camp run by the American School for the Deaf, Camp Isola Bella recently decided to limit its number of summer campers.
Typically, the camp hosts both ASD students and deaf or hard-of-hearing children who attend other schools. This year, only ASD students will be able to attend, which means that camp is off the table for Howard-Karp’s daughter.
Howard-Karp lamented that her daughter will be missing out on two weeks of being fully immersed in ASL with campers and counselors who all speak her language. Her daughter has attended other day camps where an interpreter is provided for her, but it's not the same, she said.
“It’s hard to connect with somebody through an interpreter. She makes it work, but it’s super difficult,” Howard-Karp said.
Jeff Bravin, executive director of the American School for the Deaf, told WGBH News that Isola Bella is one of very few camps in the country that caters specifically to deaf and hard-of-hearing children. The difficult decision to reduce the number of campers was in part motivated by the fact that the camp attracts students from across the country who could potentially bring the virus with them.
“In the environment we’re in, we feel this is the most reasonable decision to make. It breaks my heart. And I know it will break the hearts of many of the children out there. If there was anything I could do differently, I absolutely would,” Bravin said.
West Roxbury resident Katherine Finucci said that her daughter 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth was looking forward to spending two weeks at Camp Clara Barton in North Oxford, Mass., designed for children who have type 1 diabetes.
But the camp announced last month it will not be operating this summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that people with diabetes may be more likely to develop serious cases of COVID-19.
Lynn Butler, executive director of The Barton Center for Diabetes Education, which oversees Camp Clara Barton, explained in an email that “it would have been impossible to screen [campers and staff] and quite frankly, too many unknown factors exist to take that risk.”
But she is aware that closing is devastating for campers who benefit from a program filled with other children with the same medical condition.
“The camaraderie is a lifeline for them. Being with others who share the same frustrations not only makes them feel better emotionally but also is a great reminder that others feel that struggle,” Butler said.
Camp Clara Barton is now planning on engaging with campers online. Butler said that a group of former counselors are spearheading the development of a one-month virtual camp that will try to mirror typical camp activities. Families will not be charged, but they will be asked to make a donation if they are able — the closure of in-person camp comes at a steep price. Butler said that The Barton Center is now projecting a $600,000 loss from closing its summer camps.
Parents are also worried about what a summer without camp may mean for their jobs. Renee Pacini, who lives in Medford with her husband and two kids, is concerned that she may have to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles employees to take job-protected leave, if camp is delayed or cancelled. She works full-time for a shoe company and her husband works in technology.
So far, Pacini has been able to split her time working from home and caring for her children. However, once her kids no longer have remote school to keep them busy, the situation may change, and she may have to take a leave from work.
“If [camps are cancelled], we think FMLA is really the only way we could cover it,” she said.
Her children are signed up to attend Power Camp, a summer enrichment program in Medford. Pacini said that the program director has communicated with the parents and is optimistic that the program will be able to run but is unable to make any guarantees.
Angela Fu and Lena Novins-Montague are interns at WGBH's New England Center for Investigative Reporting.