Fall back into Camp – Reflections on Summer 2020
October 22, 2020
Fall back into Camp!! We hope the new school year is off to a good start. 2020 has certainly looked and is still different than before, but if there’s anything summer camp reinforces, it’s the power of community, gratitude, kindness, and love. This past summer we were reminded of the importance of resilience, adaptability, and flexibility. We know school will continue to be different this fall for your kids – and that may not be easy for them or you. No matter what school looks like this year, remote, hybrid, etc., may the new school year be safe, filled with lots of learning, sharing, love and personal growth and success.
It’s hard to believe this past summer has come and gone. The end of summer is always an opportunity for camp directors to decompress and reflect on a safe and successful season. We find ourselves working on summer 2021 but cannot stop reflecting on what has been the most emotional six months of our professional career working in the summer camp industry. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard from several other camp directors asking to pick our brains and learn what was successful for us during these challenging times, and how we were able to make parents feel we could run a safe program. It’s flattering that people have reached out to us for advice and guidance. Honestly, we believe any camp director that opened camp may agree that it’s simply not that easy to explain. The words anxious, stress, and sleep deprivation come to mind. That said, one of the things that makes the summer camp industry unique is the willingness for competing camps to share information, strategy, and programming ideas. We’ve always believed a rising tide floats all boats. One of our camper’s parents thanked us for opening our doors this past summer. In our desire to be humble, I said we were lucky. Their response inspired me to write this blog. They said, I don’t think luck is a fair descriptor. When it comes to managing through this pandemic, knowledge, effort, and leadership are what create better outcomes – they certainly don’t happen on their own. We hope our thoughts can help other summer camps and perhaps even schools.
According to the American Camp Association (ACA), over 80% of the ACA camps did NOT open this past season. In the northeast, where summer camps are located throughout NY, NJ, PA, CT, MA, VT, NH, and ME, 90% of the summer camps did NOT open. We did! So how did we do it? For starters, Lori and I grew up in New York. We’ve never backed away from a challenge. Camp directors should be great leaders who reach out to others for shared wisdom. We were fortunate to have the support and knowledge of other camp directors, medical professionals, co-workers, and family to discuss the pros and cons of opening, not to mention helping us get through the trials and tribulations of the uncertainty that was March through June. We were faced with a daunting problem (COVID-19) and we persevered. With the additional support of the Governor of Maine and the CDC, we got to work. We kept our focus, stayed disciplined, knew our numbers, and worked hard. For starters, our 2020 camp families know that we created a fourteen page COVID-19 response plan for our community to utilize. Every summer camp program is different and we believe they will need to create their own in order to open next summer. We created a Wekeela “bubble” this past season and everyone (campers and staff) tested negative multiple times for COVID-19! We spent 7 total weeks as staff and 5 total weeks with campers in a safe bubble in the state of Maine (which was, and still is, one of the states with the lowest amount of cases and fatalities since the pandemic began).
Staff play such an integral part of a summer camp success. To pull off a “COVID summer” we were going to need the most dedicated and passionate people we could find. Our staff has always consisted of former Wekeela campers and this past summer was no different. They get camp. And they specifically get Camp Wekeela. They are camp people. However, we have also always relied on a workforce from abroad. Our international staff was not permitted to travel to the US this past summer. We had to hire and replace many positions within our staff in a short period of time. That was not easy to do, but with so many other camps not opening we were able to hire some incredible people. Before arrival, staff were asked to quarantine for two weeks. They had to do temperature and symptom checks as well. They were required to have a negative COVID test before staff week. All staff agreed to stay at camp for the entire seven weeks. They were willing to spend every day off and night time off on the camp property. (That’s asking a lot for staff with an average age of 20 to not enjoy the beautiful state of Maine and all that “Vacationland” has to offer). We created two additional staff lounge areas for them to enjoy and gave them more access to the Internet during time off. We got very creative by giving staff access to program areas during their time off. It was wonderful to see good clean fun and the connections and friendships that developed when our staff never left the bubble. All our staff wore metaphorical capes this summer; they were superheroes!!
Our campers traditionally come from 26 states and 20 countries. Unfortunately our international campers were also not able to join us for summer 2020. The campers that were able to attend also completed a two week quarantine before arrival as well as a daily temperature and symptom check. They were screened before getting on any form of transportation with additional temperature and symptom checks. The campers were then screened again at an off site location before being cleared to go to our campus in Maine. Once children arrived, they were cohorted with their counselor. We all wore masks and activities were household-focused. When we interacted as an entire camp, we adhered to the social distancing policies. We tested all staff and campers again a few days after arrival with the Quidel testing system. We had results within 20 minutes. Once we finished our quarantine and additional testing, and it was determined that camp had met the guidelines for relaxing cohort protocols, we moved back to more regular programming with specialized instruction and careful and safe interaction.
If we do say so, the success of running a summer camp during a pandemic solely depended on maintaining a “bubble.” Once we got to the point that everyone was safe within that bubble, and we no longer needed to wear masks while at camp, we finally felt like camp was back to the way camp always felt, like “home.” The anxieties of all members of our community lifted, and kids felt more like kids. We certainly had guidance and policies, but most importantly we had a COVID-19 testing apparatus and testing kits. As summer progressed we put a heavy emphasis on keeping the Camp Wekeela traditions alive — even during a pandemic outside of our “bubble” — it provided our camp staff with an opportunity to think outside the box to find ways to provide our campers and families a true camp experience in our new normal.
If COVID-19 is still around next summer, and let’s hope for the sake of humanity it isn’t, but if it is, we hope other summer camps that did not open will do so. Seeing the happiness on our campers’ faces, enjoying our weekly campfires, and having a successful and safe summer made all the hard work to open worth the effort.
Even though the calendar just turned to fall, we are actively enrolling campers, hiring staff and starting renovation projects at camp. Coming off the success of this past summer, we are very excited for what Wekeela 2021 will bring. It all starts June 24th!