As millions of students return to virtual classes at their dining room tables, some parents who are also trying to work from home have decided to ship their kids off to camp.
This might seem crazy given reports that some sleepover camps that tried to open this summer turned into coronavirus hot spots. At one camp in Georgia, hundreds of campers ended up getting infected with the coronavirus. In fact, most sleepover camps in the U.S. didn't open at all due to concerns about spreading the virus among kids crammed into bunks and sharing communal toilets.
But some others that managed to successfully keep the virus at bay this summer are now offering a refuge from the virus — to those who can afford it — where students can live and attend classes remotely.
"Instead of working at their dining rooms at home, they're going to work at the dining room" at Camp Robin Hood, says Richard Woodstein, director of the camp, located in Freedom, N.H.
It's offering a five-week Semester at Camp starting Sept. 13. Campers will log in to their remote classes in the morning. "And once they're done with their work," he says, "we'll do camp stuff."
But this will all be done with strict COVID-19 protocols. Robin Hood and other camps that operated successfully over the summer used similar plans to deal with the virus. And Woodstein is confident they can do it again this fall.
In the days before anyone came to the camp, they had to get tested for the virus. Then the campers were tested again once they arrived.
"Every child at the front gate was given a nasal swab," Woodstein says. "We checked everyone's temperature in the cars. We won't let the parents get out of the cars."
The kids were divided up by bunks into groups of 10. For the first week until everyone had passed a third coronavirus test, campers from one bunk couldn't interact with kids from other bunks unless everyone was wearing masks.
Camp officials canceled all the usual field trips and excursions that they'd usually do outside of the 180-acre camp.
"Once we closed the drawbridge, nobody was allowed to leave," Woodstein says.
They hosted 300 kids this summer, and there were no cases of COVID-19.
For the fall Semester at Camp, the plan is to create a similar bubble — a world walled off from the pandemic.
But Woodstein cautions it wasn't easy. "We showed a lot of respect to the disease, a lot of respect to how quickly it could spread. But we just had a lot of processes in place. We washed our hands like crazy."
This fall, it's not just Robin Hood that's offering parents an alternative.
Camp North Star in Wisconsin is taking kids as young as 8 for a five-week fall session. A YMCA camp in North Carolina is renting out its cabins to kids and their parents, calling it a "solution for remote school and work."
So, are all of these just coronavirus disasters waiting to happen? A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no. Looking at more than 1,000 kids and staff who attended four camps this summer in Maine, the researchers found only three people tested positive for the coronavirus and the virus didn't spread.
Dr. Laura Blaisdell, the medical director at one of the camps and a lead author of the study, says there was no single magic bullet for keeping COVID-19 at bay.
"The magic bullet is the kitchen sink," Blaisdell says.
The key was to follow the science, she says, and put in place every public health measure they could — "whether that's masking, physical distancing, testing, screening, temperature taking."
If anyone in a cabin came down with symptoms that might be COVID-19, the entire cabin was quarantined while the suspected case was tested for the virus.
But the quarantined campers still went on hikes and went swimming. They just didn't interact with the other bunks. Blaisdell says quarantine wasn't as bad as you might think.
"No, we didn't chain them to their bunk and throw them reams of meat," she says with a laugh.
As soon as the test results came back negative, the campers were released back into games of gaga ball and capture the flag.
Inside their sealed perimeters, these camps have shown that with enough testing and safety protocols they can create a world away from the virus. But the bubble comes at a price.
The fall session at Camp Robin Hood costs $9,000 for five weeks, which covers all expenses including coronavirus testing.