Summer camp directors ponder different scenarios for 2020 programs

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Going virtual. Buying “gallons” of hand sanitizer. Putting footprints on the floor to define social distancing. Postponing until July. Scrapping this summer’s program altogether.

These are some of the strategies and decisions keeping summer camp directors up at night as we all start to wonder, “What will the summer look like?”

Last week, our Pandemic Parenting Poll showed how deeply divided local parents are about whether they feel comfortable sending children to camps this summer.

This week, we’re sharing perspectives collected from interviews with program directors from a number of summer camps that serve Arizona kids.

Many are awaiting direction from our state and national leaders before deciding exactly how to proceed. As one camp director told me, “We all wish we had a crystal ball.”

One thing is clear: Lots of creative problem solving and thoughtful reflection has gone into the planning — and the Plan Bs — for the upcoming summer months.

The Desert Botanical Garden is hoping at least the popular family Flashlight Tours will resume later this summer. Photo courtesy of the Garden.

An early decision to call it off

“Sadly, we made the decision pretty early on to cancel our entire summer camp at Desert Botanical Garden,” said Lauren Marks, program development manager. Spring camps had to be cancelled about the same time Arizona’s schools closed, and when the Garden itself closed, leadership had to release all part-time, seasonal employees, some of whom start work each October and stay on through July or August, when camps would end.

“That was hard,” she says. “The Cactus Clubhouse had just opened. I had just gone through recruiting, hiring, opening… some of these employees had been with us just two or three weeks and then were let go.”

The decision hinged on an uncertain future, and worry that “if we held on too long to the possibility of holding camp, caregivers would be stranded and scrambling for an alternative in the event we had to cancel” at the last minute, Marks said.

Garden leadership also quickly realized the extent of practical barriers to holding camp programs this summer.

Hands-on experiences are essential to the children’s programming at the Garden, Marks said. “That’s the curriculum!” she said. “Touching things. We have so many tangible, interchangeable, nature-based items. Many are very porous. You can’t spray these items with bleach. They will deteriorate.”

The prospect of ramping up cleaning and disinfecting of facilities surfaces three and more times a day also proved daunting, Marks said. “We don’t have the capability, the knowledge, the staff or the time to keep up with it.”

Marks tries to keep things in perspective. “The Garden was in a little bit of a better position [than other programs] because we are a larger institution, and we do have savings to keep us afloat. We were able to let our part-time seasonal instructors go with a small relief fund.”

The staff continues to research options for phasing in some sort of programming this summer. “Will we have to adapt our philosophy to something less hands-based?” Marks wonders. “Right now we’re in the research phase. We have cancelled all programs (including those for adults and volunteers) until August. But we might bring back a couple of them if we do end up opening again before Fall. Maybe Flashlight Tours. That’s one we could do with modifications to meet safety guidelines.”

Photo courtesy of Aspire Sports Camps.

Get ready, but wait and see

When I talked with Bethany Juarez of Aspire Sports Camps in Chandler — which offers gymnastics, dance, martial arts and swim programs — its 32,000-square-foot gymnasium had already been closed for weeks per state guidelines governing gyms and fitness facilities. Staff members were operating on a cautiously optimistic mode, finalizing details for summer programs, making changes to the website and letting people register kids for summer camp with “no obligation” if they decide to pull out at the last minute.

“Are people going to do it? We don’t know,” she said. “But we know when we do reopen it will be a soft opening.” That might mean smaller numbers in group activities, footprint stickers on the floor to indicate six-foot distancing, and changed procedures for drop-offs and pick-ups to minimize the number of adults coming through the facility and possibly bringing the virus with them.

“I’m pretty sure when we first reopen, the staff, at least, will wear masks. We already had hand-sanitizer stations, but we’ve added to that. And each coach will have hand sanitizer on them at all times.”

Having a large gym will make it easier to maintain social distancing, she says, but concerns remain about how to enforce those rules in an active atmosphere where kids are having fun. For that reason, programs likely will first open to teens. With older kids, she said, “it’s easier to establish those boundaries.”

Ultimately, she knows, the decision about reopening may be taken out of their hands. “Optics matter,” she said, “but we don’t want to make all of our decisions based in fear. We want to make the right choice. We’re hoping the state itself will issue guidelines and we’ll follow that.”

This idTech student created a surgical mask extender from a 3D printer.

The pivot to virtual camps

idTech Camps, which offers specialized STEM education camps hosted on university campuses around the county, made a quick decision to scrap in-person camps this summer in favor of enhanced virtual experiences, according to spokesman Clay Patterson.

“We’ve been in the online world for about 10 years,” he said, which gave the company an edge, and the confidence to make a quick decision. Still, “it was a pretty substantial pivot in how our courses are offered.”

idTech, based in San Jose, California, was among the “early accepters of being locked in at home” and its curriculum-development team started working around the clock to bring solutions to families as early as mid-spring, when parents who were suddenly home schooling turned to them for help. The company also offers one-on-one tutoring sessions in coding, computer science, video-game design, robotics, 3D characters, artificial intelligence and other tech topics.

For the summer, iDTech camp will run Virtual Tech Camps in one-week sessions. Camps will be project-based, with live instructors for two-hour blocks of time and additional project development work kids can self-pace from home, Patterson said. Classes will remain small (5:1 for teens, as low as 3:1 for the youngest students) and will emphasize collaborative work.

“Kids need to be able to talk and share and play with their peers,” he said. “We saw that as really necessary. We want them to be able to make friends, and be friends, even after camp is done, just like they would at an in-person camp.”

Course offerings will be modified to account for the fact that children participating from home may not have the same “powerful gaming laptops we typically bring to in-person classes,” Patterson said.

A fall art camp at Carrie Curran Art Studios. Summer will look different, with wide spacing for in-person camps and virtual options. Photo courtesy of the art studio.

A hybrid approach

When she realized how divided parents felt about sending kids to camp this summer, Carrie Curran of Carrie Curran Art Studios in Scottsdale also made a quick decision: She is prepared for both in-person and virtual participation in her summer art camps.

She was already leaning toward hosting in-person camps, but was planning to cut class sizes in half, and keep easels at least six feet apart. But her experience teaching virtual art lessons this past few weeks made her decide to do the same for summer camps — as an alternative for families still feeling uncertain about kids re-entering public spaces.

The virtual classes will be held concurrently with the in-person classes, making for an interactive, and live, experience. The studio will make pick-up art kits with all the supplies kids will need available for purchase.

Her daughter Maggie, who also works at the studio, “will buy gallons of hand sanitizer” from a local brewery, she said. They’ve also ordered thermometers and made their own blend of sanitizer spray.

Water fun at Camp Wildwood, a boys-only sleepaway camp in Maine. Photo courtesy of the camp.

And what about overnight camps?

Mike Conte, assistant director of Camp Wildwood, usually has about 20 families from Arizona and California send their sons to this boys-only sleepaway camp in Bridgton, Maine. This year, who knows?

On the one hand, he says, parents may see a sleepaway-camp experience as safer: It’s a limited population in a controlled space, in a secluded lakeside environment. “Wildwood has already told families if we do [hold camp], staff, counselors and kids will be on the property the whole time. No field trips, no counselor days off. No socials. Everyone stays on the property.”

On the other hand, the decision for families coming from outside of Maine must also consider the element of plane travel — itself a risk factor for exposure, despite significant efforts airlines are taking to keep planes safe for travelers.

Camp Wildwood also is taking unprecedented measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For the first time, no international staff will be hired. “Most of our staff will be former campers, now ages 18 to 24, who are on pause from internships and jobs,” he said. “We’ll bring them up 14 to 16 days before [camp starts] and quarantine them to make sure they’re OK.”

When campers arrive, they will find fewer boys per cabin, extra maintenance staff doing extra rounds of cleaning and new hand-sanitizer stations outside the dining hall and on the tables.

Conte, a full-time middle-school teacher when he’s not at camp, hopes things work out so camp can be held. “Boys need that camaraderie,” he said. “They’re missing that the most [since schools closed].

“Ultimately, we are under the guidelines of the CDC and the state of Maine,” he said.


From the New York Times: All the Reasons This Will Be a Bleak Summer for N.Y.C. Children