Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and cultural critic. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Are your kids going to camp?” This is the big question circulating in my moms’ group texts and online parenting networks this summer. It’s an incredibly fraught issue that – along with the concerns about health risks – brings with it fears of judgment and disapproval from fellow parents (in most families, that means moms, who tend to bear the brunt of organizational labor for the family).
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and unlike previous summers, where I was able to sign up for different day camps each week, this summer most camps in the region are requiring parents to sign their kids up for two or three-week sessions in order to keep children in a stable group and minimize the number of other kids they come in contact with. In addition, for the sports camp my son will be attending, there will be no sharing of any equipment among kids.
Despite this promise of precautions, most of my parent friends are either expressing fear about sending their kids to camp, or simply opting not to – some of them because their jobs allow them to make do while working from home. I, on the other hand, am a full-time freelancer and have been hoping and praying for in-person summer camps to open for my rising third grader to attend. Now that they have – and barring any changes in local restrictions – I’m sending him.
My feelings about this, while informed by my own situation, are much more about my son’s emotional well-being. After more than three months of shelter-in-place and social isolation, my son and his peers have major quarantine fatigue. They’re frustrated and upset about not being able to see their friends, engage in any sports or go to any kid-friendly venues. While I understand well the risks of spreading Covid-19 that summer camps entail, I’m much more worried about the social-emotional toll the pandemic has taken on my son. That’s why I’m sending him to camp.
What experts are saying
I haven’t made this decision in an uninformed manner. Last month, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel – who worked on former President Barack Obama’s health care advisory team – and fellow researchers from the University of Pennsylvania wrote an op-ed in The Atlantic, arguing that summer camps should open, despite the fact that we’re still in a pandemic.
Economist Emily Oster – known for her data-based parenting guidance, which she publishes in her ParentData newsletter – also wrote an op-ed last month in the Washington Post, suggesting that schools may be one of the least risky institutions to reopen. “Summer-camp season offers the chance to test the idea that bringing young people together may not spur a significant spread of the virus,” she wrote.
Oster compiled data from various countries, concluding, “the preliminary evidence on kids’ role in viral spread is, frankly, encouraging.” Beyond this relatively low risk, summer camps are important for a whole host of reasons noted by Oster, including providing child care for essential workers and others returning to work outside the home, many of whom are supporting low-income families. And those families – which include 30 million kids in the US – also rely heavily on school and summer camps to feed their children.
And then there’s my biggest concern: the risk posed to kids’ mental health from sustained social isolation. As Oster notes, specialists foresee a rise in mental health problems among children and adolescents due to the pandemic. Children in abusive households face an even greater risk in staying home rather than going to school or camp.
The New York Times recently surveyed hundreds of epidemiologists about when they would feel comfortable resuming different daily activities. Regarding sending kids to camp, school or childcare, 30% said they would do so now or this summer and another 40% said they would send them back in the fall. In all cases, notes the Times, they said they would consider camp or other similar activities for kids “much sooner than most said they would resume other activities that involved big groups of people gathering indoors.” Many of the surveyed epidemiologists in the group who said they’d be willing to return their kids to camp soon provided comments suggesting that the emotional and developmental benefits of kids returning to a venue where they’re allowed to socialize with their peers outweigh the relatively low risk of them contracting and spreading the virus.
While a large percentage of epidemiologists (70%) wouldn’t send their kids to camp, my own family’s circumstances make me more willing to chance it: no one in our household is immuno-compromised, my husband is an essential worker and has been working outside the home throughout the pandemic – he was tested for Covid-19 recently and was negative – and my 2-year-old daughter has continued to attend daycare with a small number of other children. In addition, the camps my son will be attending are focused on outdoor activities, where the risk of transmission is quite low.
Keeping my son and me safe – and sane
Beyond these experts’ arguments, I’m heartened by the extensive guidelines released by the American Camp Association and YMCA for youth and summer camps, which is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and includes many suggested modifications for in-person programs. These include prioritizing outdoor activities and organizing “camp into the smallest practical group sizes and to the extent possible keep[ing] groups consistent throughout the camp program.”
While all children have different physical and mental health realities – and some are immuno-compromised, making the prospect of Covid-19 a much more serious issue – my 8-year-old son is at low risk. He’s an outgoing, independent and highly energetic kid who needs constant stimulation. He’s not the kind of kid who can entertain himself reading for hours; he’s the type that whines, “What am I gonna do?” until I want to scream.
Unlike other kids who have siblings close in age, he has a 2-year-old little sister who’s way behind him developmentally. He’s bored out of his mind. This manifests in a curious way: whereas before the pandemic, he was always pushing me to bring him places and set up playdates, now he says he doesn’t want to do anything. His whole social world has shrunk to such an extent that virtually all he talks about is his favorite video game. This is rather terrifying to me, but it’s understandable – he has nothing else to look forward to on a day-to-day basis.
An article published in the Wall Street Journal last week gets at the concerns I have about prolonged social isolation. Andrea Petersen quotes child psychologist Rebecca Rialon Berry on the increased depression and anxiety found in certain populations who continue to quarantine: “We have to start talking about the calculated risk and taking some more.” Petersen cites evidence of increased depression in elementary school students in China after two or more months of sheltering in place at home.
Evaluating risk is hard. In the end, this is best for my son
As my peers and I have learned during this period, digital playdates aren’t generally a good substitute for in-person play – my son and most of his friends got tired of them after the first month. As pediatrician Dimitri Christakis told Petersen, “It is immensely important to be physically present the younger you are. Social emotional learning happens when they are physically present with peers learning to negotiate and share. You can’t do that over Zoom.”
And this is why my son’s mental health and the negative effects of continued social isolation are a much more pressing concern for me than whether he’s exposed to Covid-19. He’ll also be in an environment where care will be taken to minimize the risk he could expose anyone else. The way I see it, it’s a far greater risk to keep my son at home, bored and (I believe) a little depressed, than to allow him to get back outside and interact with other kids his age.
In fact, this was proven to me just a few weekends ago, when I took him to two kids’ marches in support of the ongoing, widespread protests following the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. My son was hesitant to go – in line with his recent aversion to going out – but several of his closest friends also attended and, even though they had to limit close contact with each other, he was clearly so happy to see them; he later told me it was the best weekend he could remember.
Unsurprisingly, sending my son to camp will also benefit my own mental health and ability to work. As Emanuel and his colleagues wrote: “For parents, the burden of working while providing child care and serving as teachers’ aides – without the assistance of schools, sports, social clubs, and other organized non-familial activities – is enormous and unsustainable. Reopening summer camps across the country will benefit entire families.”
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The conversations I’ve had with local teacher friends in recent weeks only convince me further that I’m doing the right thing for my son. It’s still not clear what kind of school situation awaits my son in the fall – it is possible it will be full-time distance learning. Even the possibility of this – which frankly, makes me want to pull my hair out – adds to my sense of urgency to get my son out of the house this summer.