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I’m a pediatrician and a parent. We should send our kids to summer camp.

I recently received notification that my kids’ overnight summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin was “monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely” as they evaluate their summer programming. The leadership at our camp, the Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, and other overnight summer camps across the U.S. are undoubtedly worried about the prospect of cancelling camp altogether on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They highlight, almost apologetically, the worst-case scenario of not providing camp for our children’s summer sessions. There is certainly no need to apologize for due diligence and proceeding with caution.

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As a pediatrician and pediatric intensive care physician, I understand the desire for the camp to assess the situation with a focus on health and safety. Indeed, I fully support the cautious approach. These are unprecedented times with a global pandemic our generation has never before seen.

Even in my own medical practice in the pediatric ICU at Comer Children’s Hospital, I am witnessing first-hand the devastation this novel COVID-19 virus has been unleashed. Social distancing is all we can offer right now, and cancelling camp, like closing schools, is a form of mandatory social distancing.

But are we simply trading the well-being of adults for the well-being of our children?

As a pediatrician, a former OSRUI summer camper, and parent of two OSRUI summer campers, my medical and parental opinion is that the overall benefits of summer camp, particularly overnight camp, may outweigh the immediate risks of COVID-19 to our children and families.

The medical data are increasingly clear that for unknown reasons, children (on the whole) are being spared serious illness as a result of COVID-19 infections. Otherwise healthy kids at camp are unlikely to have any significant risk to one another as a result of COVID-19 related infections.

These data are clear and compelling. However, children often act as a reservoir for infectious diseases, which is why schools across the US are closed, and this reservoir poses a risk to the adults in the community.

Keeping children away from one another is not a strategy to protect the children per se, but rather, to protect the adults who come in contact with those children.

Given the virulence of COVID-19, it is almost certain that the overwhelming majority of the US population will at some point contract COVID-19 related illness. And although 80% of those affected will recover without incident, there is a significant risk to the other 20%.

At the same time, the immediate risk of adults contracting COVID-19 infections must be balanced against the long-term mental health risks of keeping children in indefinite quarantine, and the added angst imposed on our children from the uncertainty surrounding cessation of basic childhood routines such as attending school daily.

In addition to providing an opportunity for kids to return to a normal state of being, summer camps allow children to maintain normal psychosocial development by acclimating to a new group of peers, making new friends, learning how to ask for help from others, and taking new manageable risks without the safety net of parental supervision.

Camp affords kids an opportunity to dress down, stop wearing makeup, unplug from electronic screens, get dirty, and explore new interests, all while making new friends. Combined, these experiences can lead to highly desirable life-skills, including effective coping, mindfulness, environmental awareness, peer-to-peer negotiation, and resiliency.

Skills like social interaction, self-confidence, and healthy living choices all can be learned and solidified at camp. In some cases, camp offers children a new sense of Jewish culture, whether through exploration of the arts, religion, Hebrew language, or even an opportunity to discover an inner talent or social group with common interests. Kids emerge from camp with enthusiasm, higher self-esteem and a sense of belonging and inclusion.

No doubt, the lifelong impact a positive camp experience can have on a child is immeasurable, and Jewish-based camps are uniquely positioned to provide kids an opportunity to develop their Jewish identity in a peer community not otherwise available to them at other times during the year.

And the modeling data from The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, strongly suggest that by the time summer comes, the worst of this first round of COVID will be well behind us.

Jewish summer camp can be the gateway back to normalcy for our children as the immediate issues of the COVID-19 pandemic start to wane over time. Maybe these young campers will return to our communities, congregations, and schools with resilience to face new challenges, and help us adults manage our own anxiety about the uncertainty of our “new normal.”

Jewish summer camps declaring themselves “open for the summer” may give our children and our entire community something to look forward to — a moment of certainty in an otherwise uncertain world.

Jason M. Kane is a parent, physician, and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital.


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