Parents want to keep their kids safe — that’s a no-brainer. As we move into the colder months of the year and the holiday season, however, parents’ concerns are reaching new heights. Sure, there are typical worries such as avoiding accidents and injuries and protecting kids from bullying and the dark corners of the internet, but now parents face the increased risk of their children becoming infected with the Delta variant of COVID-19.
Despite evidence that children are safer today than they were two decades ago, parents hold a heightened awareness of their child’s physical, mental, and emotional health.
“Safety is the number-one concern on every parent’s mind right now,” said James Rhyu, CEO of Stride, in an interview with Mark C. Perna of Forbes regarding parents’ mindsets on schools reopening this fall.
It’s one decision to send a child to school — with possible mask mandates and physical distancing — yet children return to their homes at the end of the day. It’s another conversation, however, when parents consider sending their children to overnight camp — where they live in close quarters with other campers, engage in meals and activities, and where the COVID-19 protocols might be more relaxed.
Though it feels like we just wrapped up summer 2021, the off-season is always shorter than it seems. For many camps, enrollment for summer 2022 is well underway. As you engage with parents and camper applications, it is important — now more than ever — to remember the qualities that parents may look for when considering camps: practices, policies, and procedures surrounding the health and safety of their campers. Highlighting these areas can serve both as a reminder of your camp’s greater purpose as well as minimize challenges and concerns for staff, parents, and campers.
First and foremost, parents want to know where they’ll be sending their children, whether it’s for one week or for eight. What is the environment? How safe is the location? What are the views and beliefs of the camp?
This is where accreditation plays a major role. ACA accreditation indicates that a camp follows a set of high standards and operates under the approval of industry professionals and authoritative sources. These standards set the bar for health, safety, and risk management practices while providing evidence of a camp’s sustainability and continual pursuit of improvement.
Transparency of your camp’s operating guidelines and ethics allows prospective families and campers to grasp a clear picture of the camp’s culture and organizational structure. Presenting well-defined and understandable information around safety practices, supervision practices, and health practices serves as an efficient and effective approach to communicating with the public while also building trust among parents.
Nearly synonymous with practices, policies consist of the rules and guidelines that your camp or program follows. They serve as foundational principles for administrators and staff on how to conduct all business and activity related to the organization. When it comes to health and safety, parents may be interested in knowing the scope of health history that camps collect; how medicine is stored and administered; requirements for health exams upon arrival; safety around food and allergies; staff training around first aid and health care; expectations for camper supervision and staff-to-camper ratios; and cleanliness of sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and other facilities.
As we’ve seen, the last two summers have introduced a new level of health concerns. As COVID-19 persists, and with the rise in cases among children and youth, parents have every reason to be concerned about the health policies at their children’s schools, extracurricular activities, and, yes, camps.
Depending on the type of camp and programs you offer, the list of policies can vary in topic and in length. Across the board, though, every camp and program should have on hand a list of health and safety policies written in clear, concise language, receive approval from the board of directors or another appropriate source, and ensure that policy guidelines conform with all applicable laws. In the case of parents and families, it will only benefit your camp to provide visible and understandable language around operations and get in front of their questions and concerns.
Let’s look at a few examples more closely:
In addition to adequate sleeping quarters and bathrooms, consider what other facilities your camp has that may require health and safety policies. What guidelines are in place for sanitization of dining halls? What policies does your staff follow for activities around aquatics, archery and riflery fields, ropes courses and rock walls, or horseback riding?
Trips and Travel
Many camps and programs offer trip days and overnight adventures, such as white-water rafting, trips to nearby cities, or overnight backpacking trips. As with any field trip, there are numerous logistics to consider: buses, meals and snacks, camper supervision, etc. Stepping off camp property may give some campers — and parents — cause for concern. What if there’s an accident? Are the vehicles clean and functioning properly? What if a child wanders from the group? Answering questions ahead of time, setting policies such as trip waivers and permission forms, establishing a communication plan across all constituencies, and creating consistent expectations around health and safety can set the stage for a successful day away from camp property.
Many camps are built to enjoy the outdoors. Cabins with screened windows and walls, doors with simple locks, and, in some cases, no air conditioning, ensures that all at camp have the chance to immerse themselves and fully experience nature. Moreover, many camps are enclosed by only trees or low fences, making it easy for people to leave — or enter — unexpectedly. As uncomfortable as these conversations can be, camp security should be a top priority for administrators and staff. Camp should be a safe and fun environment, and it is your responsibility to keep it that way. What procedures does your camp have in the event of an intruder, unauthorized guests, lost campers, or runaways? Additionally, what policies does your camp have in the event of storms, wildfires, power outages, or other natural disasters? Although we hope to never encounter such events, being proactive and having clear, visible procedures across camp can keep campers and staff as safe as possible should a security threat occur.
One of the freedoms camp offers is time away from technology. Today’s children and youth have not known a world without phones and other devices, so while it may take some time to adjust, campers receive the social and emotional benefits of being screen-free. While this eliminates threats of cyberbullying and the dark corners of the web, campers and staff may face bullying and unkind behavior from their camp peers. What policies does your program have when dealing with behavioral issues? Defining such policies ahead of time, sharing them openly with parents, and training staff in their supervision and responsibilities may not prevent bullying from occurring, but it provides your program with a distinct framework from which to operate.
Practices and policies provide written context regarding your camp’s beliefs, mission, and standards, but they are only effective with procedures that are established and put into practice. In other words, procedures give you the step-by-step instructions on what to do in any given situation. Looking at the examples above, what actions does your camp take to ensure safe and sanitary facilities? What training do you require of staff in order to supervise trips, aquatic activities, or working around horses? Does everyone on campus know what to do during a storm? How do you communicate with families when a child is injured or bullied?
Procedures keep organizations in check, making sure that you and your staff can both talk the talk and walk the walk. Well-defined procedures support what you present to the public and ensure that your programming meets people’s expectations. It is critical, therefore, that policies and procedures are consistent, otherwise they may contradict one another, lose validity, and damage both your camp’s operations and reputation. Make your policies clear from the onset. Procedures are more easily adaptable depending on the scenario, but they will always follow the overarching guidance as classified in your camp’s policies.
We know all too well the benefits of camp and how it can help children grow into confident, capable, and community-minded individuals. For that journey to commence, it is up to administrators and staff to think critically about best practices for their camps and programs and to establish ground rules ranging from facility logistics to campers’ mental and emotional support. Your camp’s practices, policies, and procedures, particularly around the health and safety of campers and staff, provide a firm foundation on which to create a positive, quality camp experience. Be proactive about risk mitigation. Answer parents’ questions before they come up. Make your messaging clear and visible so that everyone – administrators, staff, families, and campers – are on the same page, and set the stage for your camp’s safest and healthiest summer yet.
Rock walls and ropes courses are a staple among summer camps. Let’s use these adventurous activities to see examples of practices, policies, and procedures your program might have in place.
Lauren McMillin is the public relationshions and communications manager for the American Camp Association.
Photo courtesy of Pierce Camp Birchmont in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire