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Sit tight. Camp is coming!

After switching gears in 2020, camps are taking lessons learned and gearing up for a safe and happy summer 2021. 

By Kristen Page-Kirby 

Planning for summer camps is like doing a jigsaw puzzle—fitting the weeks together, coordinating pickup and dropoff times, and (of course) paying for it all. As the summer of 2020 approached, parents found themselves trying to put together a puzzle that didn’t have enough pieces and had no guiding picture on the box, as emails announcing COVID-related cancelations rolled in, one after another. Parents and children alike had to adapt to a summer that was anything but normal. So did the people who were clicking “send” on those emails. 

“Starting in March the staff got together and said ‘do we really believe that what we’re doing as a camp is worth doing?’ ” says Grant Larsen, Summer Camp Director at Camp Wabanna in Edgewater. “And, if so, then we’re going to work to make sure that can happen. So we started doing any research we could on COVID, how it spreads, what are cleaning protocols—just doing as much research as we could. Then in April the American Camp Association released an 80-page document on how camps should operate, and we did all that we could to adopt every one of their best practices. Then we had to just sit and wait for the state to tell us we’re okay to open.”

Switching Gears

“By March 13 I want to say we had 200 kids registered,” says Kerry Weber, Business Director at Weber’s Bulldog Basketball Camp. “And then around May, I had the realization that camp wasn’t going to happen, and we immediately refunded everyone. Which was unfortunate from a business standpoint, because we pay a lot for advertising. We order materials for the camp throughout the year—every year we replace whistles and T-shirts and trophies. There are a lot of dollars that get spent before the whistle blows in July.”

Katy Owings, Recreation Division Chief for the City of Annapolis, says their full summer camp schedule was ready when the pandemic hit, and they ended up canceling all of the planned summer camps for 2020. “All during that shutdown period, no one really knew what was going on, and there were new rules and regulations every day,” Owings says. “We had been formulating ideas throughout April and May, and in June, when they said camps could open, we put together a modified camp schedule in probably two to three weeks.”

Most camps that did open last summer followed similar safety procedures as recommended by experts, including the ACA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local health officials—keeping campers in small cohorts, requiring masks, maintaining stringent cleaning procedures, and skipping activities that required shared equipment or couldn’t be done in a physically distant manner. 

“We mapped our property out and basically turned it into five different sections of camp, and utilized those five sections for each cohort that we would have,” Larsen says. “So when cohort A was at our ropes course, only cohort A used the ropes course all day long.” Camp Wabanna, which operated both its overnight and day camps last summer, took the separation of equipment so seriously each cohort had their own set of pool noodles; they also adapted pickup and dropoff procedures, and moved meals outside whenever they could. The number of bunks in the overnight cabins were reduced, and campers slept head-to-foot (with the top bunkmate facing one way and the lower bunkmate the other) to maximize distance between them. 

Some camps remained closed (or partially opened) but offered some virtual programming. That wasn’t an option for Weber’s Bulldog Basketball Camp. “We couldn’t. It would have been a very quick pivot, so we just said ‘let’s just let this settle,’ ” says Weber. “Coming into 2021, though, we know so much more and we have so many more options. If we’re not able to have games, we can restructure the camp to make it drill-centered, which is a huge part of the program anyway. We’ve talked about every kid having their own ball. We’ve made it our mission to figure out once we know what we can do come July, we’re going to do it to the utmost.” 

Sometimes adapting to the new situation meant looking into the past.

“We were going back to what I guess you’d call the old-school camp mentality, from 20 or 30 years ago,” said Dana Disborough Strotman, Marketing Coordinator for Annapolis Recreation and Parks. “Just get the kids outside, be outdoors and enjoy the basics of camp 101.”

“It was a blessing in disguise a little bit,” agrees Owings. “All these kids wanted was to just be outside and being with one another. We’d just go down to the water and collect little fish, and they would just explore and learn about nature. They loved it.”

“I think as adults we put too much pressure on ourselves to try to make it exactly like it was, not realizing that the campers just want to be together and playing—and if that looks different, they’re okay with it,” says Weber. “If you can get them dribbling next to each other, they’re going to laugh. We know that it’s just going to improve their mood.”


The Pure Joy of Camp

The camps also saw how much of a difference they could make in the lives of their socially starved, Zoom-stuffed campers.

“I think there was more joy in camp last year than I’ve seen in the last six years I’ve been here,” says Larsen. “They even took on the mantle of making sure things are clean, helping each other, reminding each other to wear their masks. Anything that was required of them to be here and be with others, they just did. They just wanted to be together.”

Coming Back in 2021

“You have to ask, after a year of zero revenue, ‘Is this thing even still alive?’ ” says Weber. “The first year my husband did this camp in 1996 he had 30 kids, and he said ‘If we have to start back over from scratch, we will. I’ve still got basketballs and I’ve still got hoops.’ ”

This year parents can expect to see camps opening with many of the same restrictions that were in place last summer, or at least versions of them. With things still in flux, though, nothing is quite settled—except the fact that booking that slot might be a little later this year.

“The state is still in the planning process, and believe you me, as soon as we get those green lights, it’s all going to come pouring in. Don’t freak out that you’re registering in April and May versus January and February,” Owings says. “Sit tight. Camp is coming.”

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