A trail of cars pulls into camp. Campers stay in their cars until their temperatures are tested. Once approved, they hop out and wash their hands at a hand- washing station where they are greeted by a masked, but smiling, counselor. Then they are escorted to their camp cohort of 10 to 14 other campers who for the session, is the equivalent of their family.
This is the reality for campers at Winding Trails Summer Day Camp in Farmington and camps across the state, where directors and counselors are working out ways to make summer safe and fun despite the global pandemic.
“It’s more important this summer than any other summer that campers need to be at camp,” Keith Garbart, director at Winding Trails said. “They need to be able to be outside and be able to socialize.”
State guidelines allowed summer day camps to reopen on June 22 with restrictions. The initial guidelines mandated that camp groups be limited to 10 kids, and with the cohorts socially distanced from others. Within the groups, campers are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks. Temperature checks were required. Since then, the cohort size was increased to 14 and temperature checks are no longer mandatory, but for Winding Trails, all of the initial safety measures are staying in place.
“The state said the Sunday before we opened that we could stop doing temperature checks, but we continue to do those every day because that is what we sold camp on to the parents and we feel we should stick to what we told them we would do,” Garbart said.
After the conclusion of the first week of camp, Winding Trails and other camps have noticed a few patterns. Outdoor activities work best. Parents are pleased with the safety measures. And the camp experience, while different, is still allowing kids to step away from their computers and out into the world.
Research has shown that outdoor activities are safer from spreading coronavirus than indoor activities due to air circulation. Camps are taking advantage of this, and the fact that many campers have spent months cooped up indoors pining for a summer of outdoor fun.
“We gave our counselors more freedom to explore areas of Winding Trails because we have 380 acres here and we use a very small part of it during regular camp, so we gave opportunities for camp groups, since they had to distance from other camp groups, to explore the property,” Garbart said.
The campers at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater New Haven are used to splitting their time between the great outdoors and the organization’s 106,000 square-foot building which includes an indoor swimming pool. This year, the majority of their time will be spent on outdoor activities.
“If it was too hot, we would go inside and use our gymnasium or indoor pool,” said Scott Cohen, executive director at JCC. “We had a lot of flexibility in how we ran our camp. Adapting to the regulations of the pandemic has taken away some of the things that gave us flexibility.”
Cohen said that field trips have been eliminated due to concerns about busing. Nonetheless, JCC day camps have been activity-filled so far.
“We’re really on our campus,” Cohen said. “The good thing is, it’s a beautiful campus. It’s got an outdoor pool and amenities to make it really nice. It’s just us changing.”
Shannon Lane’s two daughters, ages 5 and almost 7, are attending JCC camp this summer. Lane said the amount of activities they are able to do outside makes it feel almost like any other summer.
“What’s been most remarkable is how normal it has felt,” Lane said. “They are really unfazed by the fact that the counselors are wearing masks. They get to go in the pool, play gaga, they get to do drama, they get to do arts and crafts.”
Positive Parent Feedback
After one week of the new camp model, camp directors say parents have been understanding about the camp modifications and appreciative that camp has opened at all.
“I have been getting complimentary emails about efficiency, ‘I can’t believe you are able to do all of this and get these kids in safely,’” Cohen said. “We also hear about how kids needed to get out and the change of pace we have been providing.”
When parents come to pick up their kids at the end of the day at Winding Trails, Garbart said that parents he has talked with say their kids are happy with the way camp is going so far.
“Being outside and being able to be a part of camp has been an incredibly positive experience for them,” Garbart said.
At JCC, Cohen said that before the camp session started, campers had the opportunity to interact with their counselors over Zoom which helped both parents and campers with the transition.
“We did a Zoom event with all the parents and kids where we answered questions,” Cohen said. “We did an orientation where the kids got to meet their individual counselors and see what they looked like with a mask and without a mask and I think in a lot of ways, the prep part made the transition a lot easier.”
Lane said she felt safe sending her daughters to camp because of all of the safety measures the JCC put in place.
“The JCC staff have been really open and communicated so much about what they are doing so if you have questions or concerns, you can reach out to them,” Lane said. “That feels like a good environment to put my kids in.”
As a professor of social work, Lane said that allowing her kids the opportunity to socialize this summer is especially important.
“Nationwide, we are seeing some really serious mental health consequences of the quarantine and for me, in that risk calculation, my kids need to play with kids who are not each other,” Lane said.
Since kids in a camp cohort of 10 or 14 kids are not required to wear masks, some parents welcome the opportunity to let their kids play freely without one.
“The kids do not have to wear masks which is very good because especially last week when he started camp, it was super hot out,” said Emily Banach who has a 6-year-old son at JCC camp. “They can really be together in a typical manner and they don’t have to do any of the social distancing, just from the other cohorts.”
Parents also felt comforted by the fact that both Winding Trails and JCC camps have plans in place should a camper or counselor test positive for COVID-19. Due to the small cohorts that do not interact with others, it should be easy to identify contacts and isolate them.
“That group that that camper was with and the counselors that that camper was with would have to be quarantined for 14 days away from camp,” Garbart said. “We would ask them to self-monitor and then if they had symptoms they would have to get tested and keep us informed.”
Not all parents decided to send their kids to camp this summer. At Winding Trails, the first session is a little small, according to Garbart. He expects the numbers to grow in upcoming sessions as parents get comfortable with the idea.
“People who did back out of Session One wanted to see things and how it was going to work out before signing up for the whole summer,” Garbart said.
A Change of Pace
Most Connecticut schoolchildren have spent the last several months inside, separated from friends, completing virtual school. Summer camp, despite the modifications, provides a welcome opportunity for them to be outdoors and socialize with others.
“Depending on everybody’s home situations, the experience of camp is a unique experience and camp is an opportunity to experience that socialization that I think they so desperately need, especially after the past few months,” Garbart said. “I also think it will help them prepare for what school might look like in the fall.”
Camp allows them to practice working with small groups of peers, wearing a mask and interacting with kids their own age again, which Garbart said will be key for a successful return to school.
Before camp started, Cohen feared that being cooped up inside during the virus’s worst months would mean that campers would be especially rambunctious this year. Luckily, he said they have been happy and well-behaved.
“I wondered if they were just going to be bursting at the seams to be outside,” Cohen said. “But they have handled it really well. Like any year, the cooperation and partnership with parents makes it a lot easier.”
Banach said that for her son, who is an only child, the camp experience is crucial.
“I was less concerned about my son’s academics per se, but more concerned about really and truly interacting with his peers and missing his teachers from school and all of his routines,” Banach said. “This was a little more typical for him.”
While camps like Winding Trails and JCC have been operating since June 22, the Girl Scouts of Connecticut decided to hold out on opening until mid-July. Until then, they have been offering a virtual camp.
Mary Barneby, CEO of Girl Scouts of Connecticut said they decided to offer the virtual camp regardless of whether they eventually opened a day camp. She figured there would be some girls that couldn’t make it to day camp because of transportation or health concerns.
“It wasn’t an ‘or.’ It was an ‘and,’” Barneby said. “We’re going to have a great virtual program and we are also going to have a live program.”
The virtual program has been “slow on the uptake” according to Barneby. She encourages girls and boys, regardless if they are Girl Scouts, to check out the program.
Every week, the virtual camp has a theme. The online platform includes activities that participants can follow that are specific to an age group.
“It allows them to branch off from that virtual experience into their park or back yard or beach and to have activities that take them beyond just sitting at their computer,” Barneby said.
The program also links participants up with others in their age group to allow socialization — safely.
“We know some parents are still concerned about having their kids be in a group situation,” Barneby said. “We wanted to make sure we offered an option for people who can’t get to our camps or are in a family situation where the family is not yet comfortable having their daughter be in a group.”