DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – While school districts try to figure out how to safely educate students during the COVID-19 pandemic, some health officials said they could learn a thing or two from summer camps like Sky Ranch in Smith County.
“I am the eternal optimist,” said Linda Paulk, Sky Ranch’s president. “So I totally and completely thought we could keep COVID from entering.”
Paulk said she now realizes that wasn’t realistic.
Sky Ranch dealt with a series of COVID -19 cases this year, but she believes the rules put in place did help.
“It caused us to think outside the box about everything we were doing,” she said.
Paulk said of Sky Ranch’s summer population, less than a quarter of 1% tested positive for COVID-19 and most of those were staffers.
At one point organizers had to pause camp after a series of positive cases left them without enough staff.
At nearby Camp Pine Cove, health officials say the infection rate was just over 1%.
There too, camps were temporarily closed when clusters broke out at some locations.
Dr. George Roberts, who runs the Northeast Texas Public Health District in Smith County where both camps are located, said “Both Sky Ranch and Pine Cove should be commended for the work they have done.”
He said when it comes to COVID-19, schools can learn a lot from camps.
Lesson #1: Small groups can make a big difference.
Campers spent most of their time in the same small groups, called cohorts.
When someone in the group became sick, the cohort would quarantine while camp continued. Roberts says keeping kids in cohorts will help keep schools open.
“Hopefully you’re taking out as few people as possible, to online learning or whatever,” said Roberts.
Lesson #2: Controlling the bathrooms can help you control the spread.
Health officials found community bathrooms to be a main source of a spread at camps.
Roberts said schools need to figure out “how to keep the restrooms clean, number one. But also, how do they monitor ‘restroom behavior?’”
That means keeping students from congregating and touching the same faucets and dispensers. Not just in bathrooms, but locker rooms, too.
Roberts said those areas could be especially risky because teenagers seem to be more likely than younger children to spread the virus. “Our numbers for the younger kids are real low,” said Roberts. “And then it seemed like about 14-15 [years old] is when you see the real uptick.”
He said protecting adults will be the biggest challenge.
Teachers and staff will need to wear masks and keep their distance, but Roberts said taking every precaution will only go so far.
Lesson #3: COVID-19 will come to schools.
“The reality of life is, as we start back to school there will be cases,” said Roberts. “We can’t blame the schools or blame anyone. It’s going to happen.” Roberts says by understanding and expecting it, schools and parents will find a way to stay on campus, even during a pandemic.
After a summer of fighting the spread, Paulk agrees.
“I believe you can do this safely if you follow the guidelines and protocols.” Both she and Roberts believe that keeping schools closed any longer will lead to much bigger problems than COVID-19. “It’s a challenge,” said Roberts. “But it’s a challenge that we need to do because the kids need to go back to school.”