Why I’m Sending My Kids to Summer Camp in a Pandemic

by Paige Wolf

In the second week of March 2020, I was among the loudest voices calling for a shutdown of the schools. I knew that Coronavirus was serious and that what happened in Italy could (and essentially would) happen here in the states.

I have several underlying health conditions – primary immunodeficiency, asthma, and chronic fatigue syndrome – which leave me immunocompromised. I am that person who was wearing a mask on airplanes before we ever heard of COVID. I know what a week in the ICU can do to a very seemingly healthy person and still carry that PTSD with me every day. This is all to say, I take this virus very seriously.   

And so, I spent the following months in quarantine with most of the world. And I watched my children suffer ­– most profoundly, my tween. Like most kids his age, my son suffers from some degree of mental health affliction. I don’t believe it’s my place as a parent to broadcast the details, but I do believe it is my responsibility to let other parents know that they are not alone.

I have never met a parent of a tween who hasn’t admitted to their child struggling even in “normal times” – anxiety, depression, body image issues, hormonal changes, bullying, cliques, screen time addiction, and an assortment of stressors rivaling the challenges faced by their parents’ generation. Add four months of isolation from friends, activities, routine, traditions, and everything that ordinarily keeps them afloat? No school-aged child or parent is fine.

And so, we gardened. We baked. We tried our hand at crafts. We walked and walked through the empty streets with our masks playing sidewalk shuffle with passers-by. As a treat, we’d distantly meet up with our friends at a cemetery. Yep, that was the only open space available in the shutdown city – a graveyard. Mostly, though, my husband and I worked from our kitchen table while our kids played Roblox and watched YouTube.

We flattened the curve and looked forward to slowly opening up to a new normal. Surely the kids could go to camp by the end of summer. School would return to normal. Other countries figured it out and we could to!

Or not. Because our president is a disgrace and his followers have driven our country into utter catastrophe. Rates have skyrocketed, especially in states with Republican leadership. And even here in a state with a Democratic governor trying to instate some kind of safety regulations to protect us, the cry of “freedom!” has opened the malls and casinos and made mask-wearing a political statement. These days I feel like it’s not if I’m going to get Coronavirus, but when. America squandered its chance.

If/when schools open, we are looking at two days a week at best. Masks worn in sweltering buildings with overburdened teachers. More virtual learning for stressed out parents. The choice between losing our incomes and sanity or throwing our kids into a potentially unsafe school. A universally disjointed patchwork of half measures and insecurity. As parents, we struggle and we suffer. And we watch our children try desperately not to fall apart.

And so, this summer I made a decision that felt ethically questionable, anxiety-inducing, and hypocritical. I sent my kids to day camp.

I chose an all outdoor facility with rigorous CDC safety measures. Temperature checks, masks, small groups. The virus rates remain low in our area, for now. But it’s inevitably a risk. Everything is these days. Every time we leave our house, we have to weigh moral, physical, and mental consequences. There is no right choice.

I held my breath and made the call just a few days before camp started. And when my son came home on that first day, he was like a changed person. Instead of being argumentative, miserable, and despondent, he was…a kid again. Sunburnt with scraped knees and everything a 10-year-old should be in the summer. It was the first time the heavy weight was lifted off my heart.

I don’t know if the camp will have an outbreak this summer and I’ll live to regret my choice. Maybe I will suffer with Coronavirus due to my own decisions. We are trying to be so careful in every other aspect of our life to mitigate risk for ourselves and our community.  

There was a meme on a social media parenting page this week that really struck a nerve with me.

I made the decision to raise my children in the city so they could use the parks and playgrounds as their yard, hang at the public pools, and take in the art and culture at our museums and kid-friendly attractions. This pandemic was the first time the suburban grass looked greener, but we are invested in our home.

We don’t have a beach house or a lake house to escape to. And the assumption that everyone has a stay-at-home parent, a yard, and nearby friends with the same level of risk aversion is privileged and tone deaf. This is not a “DIY ‘80s Summer.” This is a “take a chance while you can because things are only gonna get worse” summer.

I’ve offered my children a temporary reprieve from the horror of isolation. I’ve watched my son’s deteriorating mental health drastically improve. But I’ve also exposed myself to a greater risk of ending up on a ventilator. I know that all of these things are true. This is what it looks like to be a parent in 2020.

I’m sure all the parents reading this have made different decisions based on where they live, how they live, their children’s personalities, their work schedules, their immune systems, and their personal beliefs. While I remain strongly against the opening of recreational indoor activities like malls, casinos, indoor dining, amusement parks, and bars – places you will NOT see me until COVID is eradicated – I don’t know if anything is right or wrong when it comes to childcare. Maybe viruses will spike or there will be a local outbreak and we’ll pull them out of camp. Maybe we’ll live to regret our decision. Or maybe we’ll be glad we let them have a little fun while they could. I just don’t know.

Our country simply isn’t set up to have a safety net for families or any clear direction on what to do. And so we have to carry the load of this heavy emotional labor, which will likely stay with us long after this pandemic has passed.