What’s Happening with COVID-19 and the J1 Visa?

The last few weeks have been completely mad, I’m sure you’ll agree. Nobody knows what’s going on, we’re all on lockdown or ‘stay at home’ orders, trying to stay busy and sane and plan for the future but we don’t know what that looks like or when things will go back to normal.

It’s scary, I know. For me, as someone who now works full time in the camp industry in the USA, the COVID-19 situation means that everything for this summer is just completely up in the air. While right now we are planning on summer going ahead (until we are told otherwise), it is impossible to know just what that summer will actually look like. Will we have to start late and run a shorter summer season? Will we have enough staff? Will the J1 visa program run? Will parents even want their campers to come? Will we be allowed to open at all? I’m doing whatever I can to make summer happen for our kids and for our staff. Because at the end of all this, everyone is going to need a little light and love and fun and friendship in their lives, and what better place to get all of that than at summer camp?

There are so many unknowns right now, which of course means that, as a camp person, I have about 7 billion different contingency plans in the works… Plan A, Plan B, Plan C… right the way through to Plan Z. And I will keep planning as if summer is happening until the very last moment because I want our kids to have the best summer ever.

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But I am worried. I am worried for all those kids stuck in their NYC apartments, not able to be with their friends or to learn from their favourite teachers. I am worried for our staff, most of whom are college students who are having to bunker down and finish their school year online, and some of whom won’t get to celebrate their own graduation after the last 4 years of hard work. I am worried for camps across the country, and what their closures might mean for the kids and families they serve, I am worried for our own camp families, and for people who are losing their jobs, and for the elderly, and for the lonely. Because self isolating and social distancing is lonely.

Yes, we have the internet (and isn’t it a wonderful thing) to help us stay connected – I’ve had more FaceTime/Zoom/Houseparty chats these last 2 weeks than I think I’ve had all year and, as my phone likes to tell me every day, my ‘screen time’ has risen exponentially (most of that time being spent on social media, trying to stay in touch with the world). I’ve even started a virtual camp for our campers and staff, because I want to be able to provide them with just a little bit of camp magic in their lives, to give them some socialisation and something to do other than fight with their siblings or scroll through TikTok (do you ‘scroll’ on TikTok?). Because when it’s been 5 days and you haven’t spoken to or touched another human being in ‘real life’, things can start to seem a little bleak.

And I know I am not the only one who feels like this. There will be many of you out there who were planning on heading to America this summer to work at camp, and you no have no idea what’s going on. For now, borders are closed, embassies are shut, and your J1 visa process is on hold. And I wish I could say that I have answers for you about when the embassies will open and when you’ll be able to get out to America, but right now, I just don’t. I don’t know any more than you. And I hate that. I hate that I can’t offer assurance to our camp parents, or to our international staff or to any of you. I know what you know… and that really isn’t much. I can only advise you to get all your relevant paperwork completed, stay in touch with your agency and visa sponsor and keep checking for the first available embassy appointment you can get.

Things I do know are that USIT have closed their doors (USA Summer Camp are offering to take on all USIT participants – please get in touch with them if you have applied for camp through USIT), and that all other agencies are continuing with placements and visa processing for all their current participants, but most are not taking on any new people at this point. Everyone is trying to be positive about the COVID-19 situation and the J1 visa program, but until the US Embassies open (and right now that’s looking like it won’t be until mid-May-early June), no one will be able to get their visas. And even then, we don’t know what will happen with the ability to travel. I am usually a person who sees the positive in a situation, but at this point I am not particularly optimistic about the possibility of our international staff making it to camp this summer, at least, not for the start, if at all. And for a camp that hires 60% international staff, that is a big deal. I am hopeful that we will get at least some of our internationals, but also realistic… because, for the sake of our campers, we have to have a back up plan for what we do in case they don’t make it.

Right now, it feels like we are all walking a tightrope and it could tip us one way or the other at any minute. So planning is key. And if there’s one thing camp has taught me, it’s how to plan for any and all possibilities.

So come at me summer, because whatever it looks like, we’ll be ready for you.


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