The Missouri Christian summer camp Kanakuk, which is now in its 94th year of operation, likes to declare every year its “Best Summer Ever.” This year, that title will be tough to claim. Camp sessions opened on May 30 with an impressive roster of new safety measures in place, including new low-contact drop-off procedures, new air filtration systems, daily temperature checks, quarantine protocols, and more. But on June 26, the camp notified parents by email that there were two positive COVID-19 cases at K-2, one of its six camp locations. Over the next few days, the number of diagnoses climbed to 82. K-2 shut down, and parents from 10 states scrambled to pick up their children early.
About 6.5 million young people will participate in overnight or day camps this summer, the American Camp Association has estimated. That’s down from 26 million in a typical summer. Some states, including New York and Oregon, canceled all sleep-away camps unilaterally. But many others have allowed camps, families, and local health departments to decide for themselves how to proceed. The CDC’s COVID guidelines for summer camps, issued in May, lists campers coming from outside the local geographic area as a “highest risk” factor.
Kanakuk reassured parents in part by touting the state’s approval for its summer plans. “The Missouri Governor Mike Parson has given our opening his blessing, and said he was ‘totally impressed’ with our COVID-19 Kamper Care Plan,” the camp emailed parents on May 5. (The governor’s office did not respond to a request to confirm the camp’s account.) In a video posted to the camp’s website at the same time, Joe White, who has owned the camp since 1976, said he was confident in the camp’s precautions. “As a 71-year-old man with compromised health issues, as well as a grandfather of 15 grandkids of my own,” he said, “I feel deeply the concerns that both the knowns and unknowns bring to a youth care ministry such as Kanakuk.”
Some parents say the camp has been incommunicative with them as the outbreak spread. “There was 0 communication or efforts made from Kanakuk to contact us regarding the closure. Nothing!” one Texas parent, Mia Chase, wrote to the camp’s president and health services, according to NBC News. Chase told NBC that campers were assembled in a single large group to receive the news about the diagnoses, furthering their exposure. She said kids gathered again that same night for a “mosh-pit-style” dance party, where not everyone wore their masks or the Kanakuk-branded “face buffs” they received on arrival at camp. The camp has made few public statements about the outbreak, and its communications office did not respond to multiple interview requests. Last summer, the camp’s Twitter account tweeted every day in June. This year, the camp’s main Twitter account did not tweet between June 1 and July 1, and the account for K-2 has not tweeted since June 1. When a rumor spread last week that a positive case had been diagnosed at K-1, another camp location, a camp representative declined to answer questions and asked a local news reporter to leave the property.
Other parents say they understood the risks they were taking on by sending their children to camp and were pleased with how the camp attempted to control the virus. Ann Boles, who attended the camp herself as a child, told me that she agonized over whether to send her two teenagers for their seventh summer at Kanakuk this year. They were set to start camp on July 4 this year. The week before, she received a message from the camp notifying her of the initial positive cases at K-2. “I cried a lot of tears trying to decide,” she said. “This was not something we took on lightly at all.” Boles’ daughter has three close friends who attend camp with her every summer, and two of their parents decided not to send their daughters this year.
Ultimately, however, Boles trusted the camp. She was reassured by the precautions she heard about. Campers were asked to quarantine for two weeks before arriving at camp, and they had their temperature taken on arrival. They were expected to wear masks or buffs—a tube of stretchy fabric that can be worn around the neck or pulled up as a face covering—anytime they were indoors with people outside their cabin groups of eight to 10. The buffs were collected every night and washed. Another parent told me campers in bunk beds were instructed to sleep with their heads facing opposite directions, to create extra distance between their faces. “I haven’t heard any parents unhappy about how this was handled,” Boles said. “And I felt nothing but good about sending them.”
Laura Hobbs sent her three children to Kanakuk this summer in the camp’s first session, which started May 30. “I felt like so many things were being canceled for our kids, I wanted them to have something that felt like normal,” she said. Hobbs grew up going to Kanakuk, and worked there as a counselor for eight summers. Last summer, the church her husband leads in Texas hosted a “KampOut!” session—essentially a portable day camp that Kanakuk puts on in churches across the country. When Kanakuk canceled all KampOut sessions this summer, citing safety concerns, she decided to send her children to Kanakuk’s sleep-away camp for the first time: “For us, the risk of COVID-19 versus the chance of them having more time with Jesus, it was hands down: the chance to have more of Jesus.”
Kanakuk is one of the largest sleep-away camps in the country, serving 20,000 children in a typical summer. Its unofficial motto is “I Am Third”: God is first, the camp teaches, others come second, and the self comes last. Founded in the mid-1920s by a Dallas educator, Kanakuk has had a reputation outside Missouri from the start. According to one book on Missouri history, the camp’s enrollment was so high by the late 1920s that a train was hired to transport all the campers from Texas.
The camp is now a well-known brand among evangelical Christians, particularly in the South. In the 1990s, White—the camp owner—became a fixture on Christian radio and a nationally known speaker at major Christian conferences like Promise Keepers, sometimes building and hoisting a large wooden cross on stage. Kanakuk invited Christian music artists like Michael W. Smith and Lecrae to compose music for the camp, and boasts that at least four Heisman trophy winners, including Johnny Manziel, have attended over the years. “The continual promise that Kanakuk has made to these American evangelical parents is you’re sending your child here for them to be safe and protected,” said Hunter Hampton, a historian at Stephen F. Austin State University who has written about Kanakuk’s role in evangelical culture. “When you’re in that world, the loyalty to Kanakuk is very, very deep.”
But some parents who have trusted their children to Kanakuk in the past viewed the camp’s best intentions warily. “I think everything they’re trying to do is awesome. It’s just impossible as a sleep-away camp to make it safe,” said Jason Newland, a Missouri pediatric infectious disease specialist who has sent his three children to Kanakuk multiple times over the past decade. This year, he said, it was an easy decision to keep them home. “To me, once they have 82 cases in K-2, you’re just asking for the same thing happening in the other campuses,” he said. “Why don’t we just be safe and stop everything?” Instead, the camp’s other locations will apparently remain open for the rest of the summer.