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Go online or cancel? Summer camps try to adapt to a pandemic

Mythmaking and swordplay are among the usual activities at Camp Half-Blood, which operates day camps in several mid-Atlantic states, including New York and N...

Posted: May 7, 2020 7:26 AM
Updated: May 7, 2020 7:45 AM

Mythmaking and swordplay are among the usual activities at Camp Half-Blood, which operates day camps in several mid-Atlantic states, including New York and New Jersey.

But with coronavirus looming over the summer season, there may be a need for new kinds of magic and myths.

When schools began to close in March due to the escalating Covid-19 crisis, it became clear to Crystal Bobb-Semple, founder and CEO of the company that operates Camp Half-Blood, that she needed to start devising new scenarios.

The summer camp might consolidate weeks, delay starts or maybe go online. 'We began to think about and imagine what a virtual camp experience could look like,' she said.

Like so many institutions, summer camps are facing uncertainty about whether they'll open and how they'll reinvent themselves if they do. Many are making contingency plans — sometimes several sets of them.

'Camp should not and will not look as usual this summer,' said Paul Dreyer, CEO of Colorado-based Avid4 Adventure camps, which traditionally hosts both sleepaway and day camps.

Camps in the US South often start earlier than northern ones; some have already canceled. Northeastern camps still have a little wiggle room.

At the end of April, the Centers for Disease Control and Phrevention released a 17-page draft of operating guidelines for businesses, including summer camps, but decisions will ultimately be made locally and in partnership with health officials. Suggestions include keeping beds 6 feet apart in sleepaway camps and keeping small groups together without mixing.

Together, 6 feet apart

Those considerations were already well underway for most camps. The conundrum is social distancing. How can kids packed in groups singing, playing and, for sleepaway camps, tucked into cabins stay 6 feet apart?

'That phrase, 'social distancing,' is not really in a camp's vocabulary,' Ron Hall, executive director of the nonprofit Maine Summer Camps, said.

Avid4 Adventure's staff spent the last five weeks furiously reimagining day camp.

They devised three new scenarios, including 'Small Group Adventures.' This approach would match one counselor to five day campers, who would be dropped off at trailheads or reservoirs for safe-distance adventuring. 'Camp at Home' would match four kids to one instructor, with online instruction and meetups at nearby green spaces.

At Camp Equinox, a theater day-camp in Bozeman, Montana, the possibilities connect to what schools are considering. 'We could have class on alternative days, to cut down on the number of kids,' Soren Kisiel, co-camp director, said. If camp is on, 'We'll have gallons of hand sanitizer on hand, and we'll be very carefully monitoring our staff and interns for any signs of illness.'

Taking camp online

Avid4 Adventure's final option is virtual: 15 kids and one instructor, online. It's a tough pill for some to swallow, when camps generally provide an antidote to the overly screened existence many kids had before the pandemic, which has intensified.

'Our last option is to keep kids inside,' Dreyer said. 'Our mission is just the opposite.' But he knows that some kids or their parents are in high-risk groups or can't travel.

Camp Kesem, a nonprofit that hosts free camps for kids affected by a parent's cancer, has already moved online. So has the Academic Talent Development Program at University of Califonia, Berkeley, an academic day camp, and Camp Flix, an Atlanta-based filmmaking camp.

The American Diabetes Association, which hosts 6,000-plus kids with Type 1 diabetes in 55 summer camps across the US annually, is unfolding Imagine Camp.

There will be cabins with relationship-building games and activities like scavenger hunts that kids can do at home, along with diabetes education. The upside is that it can connect kids who wouldn't otherwise meet, but the ADA will also mail kits to those who can't or don't want all-day screens.

Making camp safe for everyone, rich and poor

Though few kids have had serious complications from Covid-19, some counselors and camp directors are older and in higher-risk groups. Access to testing could make or break camp this year. If sleepaway camps can regularly screen kids and staff, they may become some of the safest spaces.

But wealthier camps may be better able to access and provide testing, should it become available. 'For smaller and nonprofit camps, costs like testing can become prohibitive,' Hall said.

The inequality that the pandemic is exposing and exacerbating may be replicated in the world of summer camps. Camps also need to have the resources to set up an isolation tent, should an outbreak occur, suggested Hall.

Camp is where the heart is

Camp is, for many parents, childcare — it will be an incredible challenge for parents to work with kids stuck inside and no school to engage them. Some camps for kids with physical or emotional challenges are the only respite their caregivers get all year.

Camp Joy in Clarksville, Ohio, annually serves 4,000 kids with hardships, including those living with diseases like spina bifida and others who are in foster care. 'Some of those kids only see their siblings once a year at camp,' Jennifer Eismeier, Camp Joy's executive director, said.

Trying to transform an online experience into something inclusive and emotional is challenging. Camp Equinox, like many theater camps, draws some kids who feel like outcasts during the year, but feel safe and supported at camp. 'That's the mission of our camp, to instill in these kids a sense of community so they're working together and supporting each other,' Kisiel said. 'I can't imagine delivering that online.' Though he's willing to try.

Camps and money conundrums

With some camps canceling, others reducing enrollment and others going virtual, the thorny question of finances for camps that charge tuition remains. Some are offering refunds, with the hope that donations can keep camp going.

So far, two-for-one is popular: Don't ask for a refund now, get next year free. Early in April, Camp Half-Blood rolled out a membership program. Those who commit will see their campers automatically reenrolled in 2021 if their weeks are canceled this year, with early registration and a permanent tuition reduction.

Heartbreak and hope

Whatever happens, the uncertainty and loss are palpable for kids, parents, counselors and camp directors.

After spending weeks preparing for multiple scenarios, and then soul-searching and conferring with their board and many other camp directors, Hidden Valley Camp, a sleepaway camp in Maine, is deciding whether it will suspend programs this summer, for the safety of everyone. 'The operative word is heartbreaking,' said Hidden Valley's co-director Peter Kassen.

Many feel summer camp is more important than ever, an antidote to the isolation haunting so many kids, a screen detox and a dose of resocializing before —hopefully — school restarts in the fall.

And if it can't happen? 'A few months from now, regardless of what happens this summer, every camp will be thinking about the summer of 2021, and there's going to be a lot of excitement about it,' Kassen said.

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