David Berkman has worked for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camping system for 24 years, and has held the position of director at Camp Kalsman since it opened in 2007. Due in no small measure to his previous experience working in fire and rescue service and as an instructor for the Red Cross, Berkman was tapped in 2020 to guide all of the URJ’s regional camps through their COVID-19 response. ParentMap caught up with Berkman to learn what parents should understand about the safety of camps in 2021.
How are you and camp staff preparing to safely operate your camp sessions?
The first thing I would tell parents is that [camp staff] view the health and safety of campers as paramount and as a partnership. We recognize this as a sacred trust that parents put in us.
We’re looking not just at Kalsman, but across North America for best practices and standards. The American Camp Association has released and continues to update some guiding principles and recommendations, obviously following guidelines of state and county departments of health.
We brought together a group of doctors from across our system; the medical director of Kalsman also happens to be the medical director of the URJ camping system, Dr. Davia Loren. She’s leading it. [The group includes] the head of the pediatric ICU at Harborview, who is a camper parent and a camp doc. There’s a doc out of the Chicago area who supervises a group of ER doctors. There’s an epidemiologist out of Houston, and there’s a chief medical officer of a group of retirement and assisted-living facilities.
They all have deep ties to our camping system: We were looking for experts to help guide our decisions who had the credentials, the gravitas and the backbone to be able to tell us, “No, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.”
What would you say to a parent who is on the fence about sending their child to summer camp?
I think it’s reasonable to be on the fence. [Now is the time] to have that conversation with the leadership of the camp, to get questions answered to your satisfaction; and to recognize that not all the answers are available yet.
I am having conversations all the time where I say, “We’re talking about it and we’re thinking about it, but it is premature to have that conversation.” For instance: Testing, right? What is it going to look like? Well, I don’t know, because testing has changed so much in the past six months. I know it’s going to change again in the next six months. If we can wait three months to make that decision, to have the best test available on the market? When it comes to your kid’s health and safety, we are going to wait three months to make that decision.
I would say most camps probably recognize that there’s some level of uncertainty going into the summer, and they should be able to provide you with a really clear refund policy. When are payments due? What happens if the state says [the camp] can’t open or the camp says they’ve decided not to open? What are the refund policies?
How is registration looking for Camp Kalsman so far?
In the first 24, 48 hours, we normally see maybe 200 kids register. And we saw over 400 of our kids re-enroll. So, there’s a demand for it. Kids need the social interactions, the ability to be outside and the ability to be with friends for their mental health. As adults, we have to balance that with answering the question, how do we keep everybody healthy? We’ve had over a year to start planning that. I feel much better about our ability to go into this summer than I did in March of last year.
What I would caution parents against is not being prepared to send your kids to camp and then being stuck without an opportunity for your child as things ... become more comfortable. But parents have to make decisions about what they feel is best for their own family, their growing children. This year in particular, there are going to be lots of questions.
Are you planning to restructure some of what you would normally do?
Absolutely. First, there’s going to have to be a real strict adherence to NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions]: social distancing, masking, hand hygiene and more — all of that is going to be really important. Not only will that fight COVID, but it will help keep what we affectionately refer to as the “camp crud” down. If you increase hygiene and these other non-pharmaceutical interventions of masking and distancing, you tend to have fewer sick people at camp. And that relieves the burden on the healthcare system of the camp.
I would say that parents should reasonably expect some form of podding that is different than in previous years. Depending on the length of the session — here, we’re West Coast camping, so sessions are often short, so, seven, 10, 14 days — you may not be able to expand that pod, but if you have kids at camp longer than a 14-day cycle, you can reasonably open up that pod after some in-person isolation and testing.
Why is camp so beneficial for kids?
Camp is not necessarily about the coolest lakefront activity or the best ropes course. Those are nice features, but the benefits of camp are the friendships, the lifelong skills kids learn, an appreciation of nature. Those don’t change from year to year. In some ways we might think of it as going back to basics. Frankly, with the amount of virtual programming that’s going on in school and everywhere else, any time together outside is going to be really warmly received. The kids are itching to be outside. Parents are itching to get their kids outside!
Kids grow more emotionally and socially in a month at overnight camp than they probably do in a normal school year. They’ve got to learn how to deal with 10 to 15 bunkmates. They’ve got to come to terms with group choices, problem solving, personal growth and personal responsibility in a really healthy and appropriate way, with the guidance and support of mentors who are dedicated to their success.
Camp is about kids learning to develop, grow and become positive members of society. What’s more important than that, than setting up the next generation for success?
Any final words of reassurance for worried parents?
What I would urge parents to understand is that nobody takes [the pandemic] more seriously than this industry — I mean, we really do. We’re as committed to your kids’ success as you are. It’s hard to be optimistic in the middle of a pandemic, but I’m optimistic. I think camp is remarkable. I think there’s a way to do it safely. And if we can’t do it safely, we won’t do it. But I believe there’s a way to do it safely. Camp is a powerful, powerful, powerful and life-changing opportunity and does a world of good for kids.