Summer camps in COVID: feeling a loss, looking ahead
WAYNE & PIKE – The experience of summer camp is world-changing for children, from singing songs and making s’mores around the campfire, bonding with new friends, learning about nature to building one’s self-esteem and expanding horizons. All this has been put on hold for many, as the world rides the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adam Baker, who with Paul Schorey heads the Wayne County Camp Alliance (WCCA), said that only five of their 33 member camps opened in the summer of 2020.
Even the casual observer in Wayne and Pike Counties may have noticed by now, the fewer camp counselors and campers visiting local stores, and the lack of camp buses on the road.
Yet in Wayne and in Pike, summer camps abound, and are part of a long heritage, a refuge of over a century for city kids in particular, getting a chance to breath the fresh air, see the stars, swim in a lake, watch deer, along with everything else camp provides.
COVID-19, the disease carried by this microscopic novel coronavirus, has in a large way threatened our health, halted or slowed our way of life and stifled the economy to a level never seen before. Camps are no exception.
Not just economic loss
There is a profound sense of loss,’ Baker said, emphasizing it is far more than financial. He cited not having the kids here for the summer, with the learning that takes place and friendships that are built. Then there’s the community engagement. The Alliance, as well as individual camps supports local fire and ambulance departments, and Wayne Memorial Hospital.
The WCCA, which was founded in 1949, brings as many as 32,000 children to the area every summer, among the 33 camps spread across Wayne County with some that have properties in Pike and Susquehanna as well. The campers primarily come from a wide area of the East Coast, many from greater New York and greater Philadelphia regions.
Each camp is independently operated; they are unique, each with its own personality. Some are run by nonprofit organizations. Some are secular; others are hosted by a religious group.
Some are 100 or more years old; their newest camp was founded about five years ago.
The camps are facing a significant impact financially, Baker said. Operating a summer camp involves much work year-round, maintaining and improving their camps, preparing for the summer, recruiting campers.
But this year, most are shut down and revenue is “next to nothing,” he said. That loss, he said, is “unrecoverable.”
Paul Schorey is director of Chestnut Lake Camp, a co-ed camp in Beach Lake founded in 2008.
He said they were not able to open this summer because with the state’s phased reopening plan this spring, there was no time to prepare. By the time Wayne County entered the “Green Phase” and camps could operate in a modified fashion, there was no time to arrange it.
Normally, Chestnut Lake would be hosting about 400 campers with 175 staff, for a two-part, seven-week season from late June to early August.
They were able to rent the camp facilities to another group for part of July.
To help keep engaged with their many camp families, Schorey said they invited them to the camp for by age groups (to limit the size and keep within state guidelines) to have an outdoor barbecue and reconnect.
They have also kept in touch with the families with a virtual camp program and social media.
Schorey said he believes the greatest challenge is experienced by the children, who are missing out on camp.
The hope, Schorey said, is that 2021 will be more like a “normal” year and much closer to business as usual.
Protocols such as social distancing are a challenge, but Schorey said they will meet the safety standards.
Baker is a director at Camp Equinunk and Blue Ridge. Camp Equinunk is the boy’s camp, founded a hundred years ago in 1920; Blue Ridge, founded in 1923, is the girl’s camp.
They are used to welcoming approximately 650 children for the seven week program, run by about 425 staff.
He said they also decided not to open this year, for similar reasons as at Chestnut Lake.
Baker said they wanted to be able to have proper testing for the coronavirus COVID-19 available.
Opened for season
One of the few camps that opened for the season is Camp Shohola for Boys, in Pike County.
Camp Shohola for Boys was founded in 1943. The camp is not part of WCCA.
Duncan Barger, Director, said like others that opened, they used a multipronged approach and had a shorter season. One advantage they have is they are small, with 115 campers and 70 staff.
Staff had to be there two weeks before camp opened. Everyone was tested for COVID-19. He said that luckily their testing company provided a quick turnaround. Two staff tested positive upon arrival, but showed no symptoms at all. They were isolated in quarantine, and both recovered; their next test came back negative.
Campers had to arrive on the same day; all were tested and the results were 100% negative, Duncan said. Campers were quarantined, awaiting test results.
Temperature checks were taken and an intensive cleaning regime was implemented.
How was the response from camp families to sending their kids this year?
“Many returned and even urged us to fight through all the difficulty for the sake of the children. Many were too nervous to try it, which is understandable,” Duncan said. “But for us, the most amazing thing was the rush of new families who found us in the 11th hour because their camp had closed. It was literally a tsunami of enrollments for about two weeks in June.”
Duncan stated, “We have been so fortunate that our plan has worked out just as we laid out.” They adjusted their program for he first three and a half days, moving cohorts or groups around the property.
Because they had a 100% negative result with their first round of camper testing and had campers tested during the week leading up to camp, they were able to shift into their “normal” programming mode. That means mixing and mingling of the entire camp population.
“We are now operating and living like a large household,” Duncan said.
Schorey said communicating with families is a large component, so that the families feel safe and secure in sending their kids to camp. Many live in some of the areas hit hardest by COVID- 19. Families need time to decide if they will be comfortable with camp.
Equinunk & Blue Ridge also had an afternoon barbecue for camp families to attend, with social distancing, Baker said. They also have been offering online camping experiences this summer.
Summer camps give a great deal of business to the area, from visiting day parents to contractors that service the camps.
In January 2017, the WCCA released an extensive economic study on the industry’s local impact. It shows that the industry contributes $123 million a year to the region- under normal times.
The study showed that are at least 60 summer camps in Wayne, Pike, Monroe and part of Susquehanna County on average pay over $101,000 annually in property taxes.
Looking forward to 2021, Schorey said, is that 2021 will be closer to a “normal” year and much closer to business as usual.
Protocols such as social distancing are a challenge, but Schorey said Chestnut Lake will meet the safety standards.
Baker stated that the camps have time on their side. He said they have time to learn more about this virus. Testing may become more available, and perhaps there will be a vaccine.
“Wayne County is a wonderful area,” Baker said. “Camps are very much a part of the area.”
“And I hope we can all learn something from this moving forward,” Duncan said of the experience contending with this pandemic.
As stated on their website, the WCCA sets the standard for what makes an exceptional camp experience. The camp directors cooperate to develop best resources and bring access to resources the camps need.
“We share a common goal of providing a safe and nurturing environment for kids to grow and learn, and boast the highest quality of staff and facilities,” the Alliance site states.
For more information visit http://www.waynecountycamps.com .