Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Our children are our most prized possessions. We protect them and shield them from danger and mishaps and we try to the best of our ability to keep them safe from harm. We expect that same level of care when we send them to school. [The issue of school safety was addressed in this space on March 4, 2015, “School Safety.”] Summer sleepaway camp is one of the joys of childhood, but the potential for accidents is exponentially higher than what children experience at school.

Parents choose summer camps for their children based on the camp’s overall philosophy and on their child’s particular needs. However, it is important to make sure that the facility has a strong commitment to the safety and security of its participants. Given that it is a 24/7 environment there exists a heightened potential for common injuries and complications from camp life.

Campers and counselors are almost twice as likely to become ill than they are to become injured. Colds, the flu and infectious diseases can spread quickly through a camp environment, especially given the close proximity and not always optimal hygiene in bunks. Poor hygiene can lead to infectious diseases, which in turn cause 20 percent of all illnesses among campers and staff members. Staff should adamantly require campers to wash their hands before meals—not just netilat yadayim—and encourage proper hand-washing habits throughout the day. In addition, children should know not to sneeze into their hands, but rather into their sleeves or the crook of their arms to prevent the spread of germs. Showers and laundry must be enforced—especially in boys’ bunks.

Trips, slips and falls are the most commonly reported types of injury in summer camps. Almost 30 percent of injuries at summer camp are sprain and strain injuries, which are caused by a trip, slip or fall accident. Often these injuries result from the use of improper footwear in rough, slippery terrain or other outdoor environments. There should be a camp footwear policy prohibiting sandals and flip flops during active sports or hiking periods.

Although certain camp activities may require particular specialized safety equipment, not all camps will require campers and staff to actually use the equipment. In fact, in half of all injury events in which safety equipment was needed, proper protective equipment was not being worn by campers or staff members. Lack of safety equipment can cause serious complications, including back, neck, spine and head injuries.

Injuries increase as campers and camp staff get increasingly tired throughout the day. When fatigued, camp staff become less observant, and campers become increasingly susceptible to illness and injury. Campers should not be overloaded with activity or deprived of sleep.

Each summer there are avoidable injuries at camps. Thankfully they are not usually fatal, but many are serious. Sometimes campers wander off and get lost, helmets are not always worn when playing hockey, supervision is lax during swim times, garbage collection must be optimal etc. A major part of the problem is the quality of the bunk counselor staff. Most are still in high school and aren’t trained well. In addition they are in camp to have fun themselves. Placing a dozen youngsters in the care of teenagers is risky. There was a time when counselors had to be at least 18 and had Red Cross certification in lifesaving.

We understand the difficulty in getting such counselors today. At the very least camps should enforce some basic policies. There must be intensive staff training including first aid and zero tolerance for unsupervised activities. All counselors must be on duty and in swimsuits during swim periods with eyes on the water at all times. No child should be allowed to leave a group activity without counselor accompaniment. Sneakers must be worn in order to participate in all sports activities. Waiters need extensive training to avoid spills and other hazards. If enough parents demand this it will happen.

Running a camp is like governing a small city. You need professionals who know what they are doing. Division heads and head counselors must have significant camp experience. Camp doctors should be pediatricians. Camp food should be healthful and nutritious. French fries, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, pizza and fish sticks are OK once in a while but they should not be staples.

Some parents worry about sending their children away to sleepaway camp. Some are happy to have a quiet summer at home. But even in day camp, the need for supervision is paramount. Too many searches for lost children end up tragically. Too many head traumas and concussions could have been avoided. Summer is for fun, but must also be for safety.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as an educator including many decades at summer camp with an unblemished record for safety.

By Wallace Greene

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