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Sleep Away Camps Offer COVID-Free Bubbles For Remote Learning

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than 80% of sleepover camps for kids did not open this summer because of the pandemic. Some camps that did became coronavirus hotspots; others used the isolated nature of camping to their advantage. They created COVID-free bubbles where kids could forget about face masks and social distancing. Now some camps are offering those who can afford it a refuge from the virus where students can live and attend classes remotely. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: For nearly a century, the 180-acre Camp Robin Hood has hosted hundreds of kids each summer on the shores of Lake Ossipee in New Hampshire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: At Robin Hood, every kid gets to follow something that they're passionate about.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well done.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You choose what you want to do.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: And so many new things to try.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You guys ready to have fun?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: This is the life.

BEAUBIEN: But with the coronavirus this year, it wasn't clear if all those kids could do all those camp things safely. After much deliberation, Camp Director Richard Woodstein, who goes by Woody, came up with a plan to try to wall off the camp from the virus.

RICHARD WOODSTEIN: Once we closed the drawbridge, nobody was allowed to leave.

BEAUBIEN: Every camper had to get tested for the virus before coming to Robin Hood. Then they were tested again once they arrived.

WOODSTEIN: Every child at the front gate was given a nasal swab. We checked everyone's temperature in the cars. We wouldn't let the parents get out of the cars.

BEAUBIEN: The kids were divided up by bunks into groups of 10. For the first week, until everyone had passed a third COVID test, campers from one bunk couldn't interact with kids from other bunks unless everyone was wearing masks.

WOODSTEIN: So we showed a lot of respect to the disease, a lot of respect to how quickly it could spread. But we just said a lot of processes in place. We washed our hands like crazy.

BEAUBIEN: They hosted 300 kids this summer, and there were no cases of COVID. Now Camp Robin Hood is offering a similar bubble this fall. Dozens of kids will live at the camp and log into their school's classes remotely during the day.

WOODSTEIN: Instead of working at their dining rooms at home, they're going to work at our dining room at Robin Hood. And, you know, once they're done with their work, we'll do camp stuff.

BEAUBIEN: As millions of students return to virtual classes 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 CDC says no. Looking at more than a thousand kids and staff who attended four camps this summer in Maine, they found only three people tested positive for COVID, and the virus didn't spread. Dr. Laura Blaisdell was the medical director at one of the camps and a lead author of the study. Blaisdell says there was no single magic bullet for keeping COVID at bay.

LAURA BLAISDELL: The magic bullet is the kitchen sink.

BEAUBIEN: The key, she says, was to follow the science and put in place every public health measure they could.

BLAISDELL: Whether that's masking, physical distancing, testing, screening, temperature taking.

BEAUBIEN: If anyone in a cabin came down with symptoms that might be COVID, the entire cabin was quarantined while the suspected case was tested for the virus. But the quarantine campers still went on hikes and went swimming. They just didn't interact with other bunks. Blaisdell says quarantine wasn't as bad as you might think.

BLAISDELL: No, we didn't chain them to their bunk and throw them, you know, reams of meat (laughter).

BEAUBIEN: As soon as the test results come 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 that bubble comes at a price. The fall session at Camp Robin Hood costs $9,000 for five weeks.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY BARBEE AND MATTSON 2'S "CANOE AND YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.