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

Camp Half-Blood campers could face a very different experience from years past due to social distancing measures spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic.

(CNN)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.
          Due to the pandemic, summer camps like Colorado-based Avid4 Adventure, whose campers are shown here in better times, have been scrambling.
          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.
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