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Summer Camps: Setting the Safety Bar Too Low (cont.)

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The highest risk area of camp is water-related activities, because lakes and other bodies of water are the most likely place where a camper might die, Hedges says. All summer camps should require that campers are tested at the beginning of summer camp to determine swimming skill—a requirement of all ACA-accredited camps. Summer camps also should provide lessons for those who can’t swim or for campers who have to improve their swimming, Hedges says. If a summer camp has waterfront access and doesn’t provide swim lessons, and your child doesn’t know how to swim, then you should reconsider sending your child to that camp and pick another.

Although experts believe water-related activities should have higher staff-camper ratios than do land-based activities, neither ACA nor most states have ratio guidelines that are specifically for water-related activities. For states that have such ratio guidelines, we found some that aren’t necessarily stricter than they are for land-based activities. For instance, New York requires a staff-camper ratio for water-related activities of 1:6 for children who are under 6, 1:8 for children who are 6–8 and 1:10 for children who are 9 and older.

Even though summer-camp injuries are considered to be rare, you should avoid sending your child to a camp that doesn’t have a plan for medical care when such care is needed. If a summer camp doesn’t provide an on-site nurse, then it should have at least a plan for transportation to an emergency room or to a doctor if a camper is injured or ill, says longtime camp doctor Edward Walton, who is the division director of pediatric emergency medicine at William Beaumont Hospital.

If your child has a serious injury or illness during camp and he/she has to return home, it raises the question of what happens to the tuition that you shelled out. Unfortunately, refund policies vary widely, although a few summer camps will return at least some of the tuition if an injury or an illness requires a camper to leave before camp is over. For instance, refund policies might prorate your child’s time at summer camp and refund you the remaining amount. Summer camps that have refund policies also might refund costs if you cancel in a particular time period before the start date (often at least 1 month before camp begins). So, you have to read the fine print of the policies that are in a summer camp’s contract to determine under what circumstances—if any—the camp will refund your tuition.

QUALITY AND COSTS. The good news is that the cost of most summer camps hasn’t increased dramatically in recent years. According to ACA, the average tuition for a day camp is $304 per week, compared with $303 per week in 2005. Tuition for summer camps where children sleep at the camp costs $690 per week, which is an increase from $597 in 2005. Peg Smith, who is the CEO of ACA, attributes the higher prices of overnight summer camps to higher costs of utilities and maintenance, increased food prices—overnight camps feed campers all of their meals—and increased levels of training for counselors, who supervise children at night.

“They’re running a small community,” Smith says. “When you have a 24/7 camp, your costs can fluctuate more than a day camp.”

The cost is much higher at so-called specialty summer camps, which are designed to let children focus on a particular area of interest, such as computer programming, classical music or sports. Tuition at specialty summer camps can cost as much as 1 year’s tuition at an Ivy League college, because such camps charge up to (gulp!) $10,000 per week to attend.

Of course, cost doesn’t correlate necessarily with the quality and comprehensiveness of a summer camp’s training or standards. Because no federal regulatory system exists for summer camps, the experts whom we interviewed say parents should look first for camps that have been accredited by ACA, which has accredited camps for 50 years. Experts say ACA’s accreditation requires more and stricter standards than does any other accreditation, including state licensing.

ACA accreditation includes following 300 rules and standards in health, emergency procedures and staff training. The association inspects each camp site for initial accreditation, which might take up to 3 years, and then every 3 years afterward as part of the accreditation renewal. Only about 20 percent of U.S summer camps are accredited by ACA, Smith says. Although no expert could explain why so few summer camps have ACA accreditation, we believe that most camps don’t have it because parents don’t demand it; other camps might seek to avoid the rigor of the standards or don’t want to shell out for ACA accreditation fees, which run from $500 to $6,000, depending on the size of the camp’s operating budget and its location.

Even state governments use ACA accreditation as a barometer for a high-quality summer camp. For example, Ohio provides financial aid only for campers who attend ACA-accredited summer camps. Meanwhile, lawyers for injured campers and employees successfully used the fact that summer camps failed to maintain ACA-level safety standards as evidence of negligence in court cases.

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