Their Summer Camp Tried to Be Safe. Kids Still Got Sick.

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After three and a half months in lockdown with her two kids, ages 3 and 6, Hannah Lebovits was desperate to get the children out of the house and have some time for herself. “I’m behind on everything; my husband’s behind on everything. We just cannot keep up,” says Lebovits, who is getting ready to start a new job in the fall as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. When she considered sending her kids to day camp, safety was her main focus. While Lebovits was concerned that Texas was seeing record numbers of new cases in June, she was optimistic that the numbers in Collin County, where the Jewish day camp Gan Israel was located, were much lower than in nearby Dallas. And the camp seemed to be taking the threat of the virus seriously: It required masks on counselors and older kids, small group sizes and as much physical distancing wherever possible, temperature checks every day, no parents allowed on the property, mandatory packed lunches, limited activities inside, and screening counselors who came in from out of state. “We felt this camp would make all the right decisions, which I think they did,” says Lebovits.

As she and the other parents at camp soon discovered, even taking all the recommended precautions isn’t enough to keep group gatherings safe in areas seeing surging infection rates. Two weeks into camp, a child in the 5-to-6-year-old group with Lebovits’s daughter tested positive for COVID. While the child’s cohort and counselors were sent home, they were told that, since different age groups had had no contact with one another, younger kids could return. Over the next few days, they were notified that two counselors had also tested positive, as well as a 3-year-old in her son’s group, and the camp shut down.

“Working closely with local health experts and our parent body and following the guidelines put forth by the CDC, we created a safety plan that included strict protocols should a camper or staff member test positive for the virus,” said Chabad of Plano, which runs the camp, in a statement. “About two weeks into our summer program, as infection rates suddenly began to soar statewide, two staff members and two campers tested positive. In keeping with our camp’s original safety protocols and the state’s recommendations, we immediately closed our summer camp.”

Lebovits’s son came down with diarrhea and a fever a few days later. She hasn’t gotten him a COVID test yet because her husband is self-employed, and her health insurance from her job has yet to kick in. Amid all the stress, she’s finding it hard not to blame herself. “I feel like it’s just an impossible choice. I needed time, and I needed to get things done, and there was this seemingly plausible solution to this issue. Now I just feel like I should have listened to that part of me that was saying, Keep the kids home,” she reflects.

For many parents, the reopening of summer camps, many of which take place largely outdoors, offered hope for a brief respite and return to some semblance of normalcy. Overextended parents — particularly mothers, who take on the bulk of child-care responsibilities, even in the most balanced households — have spent the past four months sidelining their careers in order to be surrogate schoolteachers and counselors and playmates for increasingly stir-crazy kids, whose social and academic development have been similarly put on hold. While many camps have closed, others have tried to reopen “safely” in accordance with varying state guidelines and CDC recommendations. But the rising number of outbreaks at these camps is an ominous sign of what is likely to come in the fall when schools reopen, particularly in states with rising infection rates like Texas. At least seven camps nationwide have shuttered in the last month after positive cases were reported among campers and staff, many of them in states experiencing high rates of community transmission. Overnight camps have shown to be especially dangerous; there was an outbreak of 82 cases connected with an overnight camp for teenagers in Missouri, despite strict precautions like installing new air-filtration systems in cabins.

What does this spate of outbreaks at camp mean for the fate of school reopenings? Experts have said that the benefits of resuming in-person education are great enough that they may outweigh the risks, particularly for younger children, who seem to be less likely to get infected and spread the virus. In a statement on June 25, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that policies should prioritize getting students back in the classroom this fall, writing that “policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families, and the community by keeping children at home.” After receiving pushback from teachers, many of whom feel that their safety has been overlooked in the push to reopen schools, the AAP clarified that schools in areas with high case counts shouldn’t be forced to reopen against the judgment of local officials.

Advocates for reopening schools, including President Trump, have noted that a number of European countries have reopened schools without seeing an uptick in cases, yet these countries resumed in-person classes only after getting their outbreaks under control. According to the New York Times, only two of the nation’s ten-largest school districts currently have an infection rate under 5 percent, the standard recommended by epidemiologists to safely reopen. In recognition of this, in the past week, a number of schools have said they will start the school year remotely, including in L.A., San Diego, San Francisco, Nashville, and Atlanta; states like Texas, which initially planned to fully reopen come fall, recently announced they are delaying the launch of in-person instruction by an additional four weeks in order to give schools more flexibility.

Dr. William Raszka, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, feels optimistic about school-reopening plans in places like his home state of Vermont, where infection rates are low, as long as stringent mitigation practices are in place. However, in areas like Texas, where there are high rates of COVID and widely disparate approaches to managing the virus from residents that have been left to go it alone, it may simply not be possible to combine people in any sort of group settings without significant risk. Ultimately, none of the recommended precautions will be enough if outbreaks are still raging, which means that, if getting kids back in school is truly a priority, we may need to scale back other reopening efforts.

“Someone’s risk of acquired infection is dependent on the weakest mitigation procedures of anyone in that group. If you have one person who hasn’t been doing physical distancing or didn’t opt to wear a mask at one family gathering, then everyone has that risk,” Raszka says. Basically: One crack in the foundation, and the whole edifice can come crumbling down. And with state governments and their citizens varying widely in their approach to managing the virus, parents who choose to send their kids back to school — many of whom are essential workers without the option to work from home — must rely on the behavior of other members of their community to keep their kids safe. Which is scary, especially in America, where masks have been politicized and misinformation is rampant.

Right now, Lebovits is taking care of her son, whose fever finally broke this past weekend, and monitoring her daughter, as well as herself and her husband, for signs of symptoms. After the camp experience, Lebovits says there is no way she is sending her kids to in-person school in the fall, even if that option is on offer, because it’s inevitable that the cycle will repeat over and over again. She’s now preparing to rearrange her life to homeschool her kids in the fall, and to accept that her academic and professional goals this year — which included publishing new research that would put her on track for tenure — are unlikely to happen. “There truly is no easy way through this. But now that I’m on the other side of it, and knowing how much safer I felt when they were home with me, I can’t imagine having them out again until things are really settled,” she says. “I can get some books and figure out how to teach my daughter everything she needs to know in kindergarten, or she’ll just be behind and that’s it. It’s not worth the risk.”

Their Summer Camp Tried to Be Safe. Kids Still Got Sick.