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VOL. 45 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 26, 2021

Parents scramble for fewer camp slots

Programs reopening with smaller numbers; some remain virtual

By Hollie Deese

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The need to register children for summer camp before sessions fill up creeps up on busy parents every year as moms and dads struggle through the last few months of school, racing from one extracurricular to another, barely able to leave the office in time to do it all.

This year, parents might not be struggling to leave the office on time to race their children to multiple after-school activities, but they are racing to sign them up for camp 12 months into the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to hold on to something as normal and cathartic as summer camp.

“We are thrilled to welcome girls back to campus this summer,” says Carol Garaby, director of auxiliary programs at Harpeth Hall School. Garaby started at the school just last month after three years at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., as a member of the auxiliary programs team. Before GDS, Garaby spent 13 years at Baylor School in Chattanooga where she oversaw all day and boarding summer programs.

Parents hoping to send their kids to camp this summer will likely find more options than last year since camps have had time to better understand and prepare for the potential risks, says Kelly Rupiper, content director at Upparent, a recommendation-sharing website for parents. It might simply be harder to secure a spot because safety modifications could include smaller group sizes and fewer available slots.

Getting back to nature will look a little different this year as camps, campers and counselors will have to pay close attention to pandemic safety measures

-- Photograph Provided

“This year has been more isolated and sedentary for many of us,” Rupiper says. “I expect summer camp to be an appealing option for families who want to counteract this, especially those camps that focus on outdoor activities and keeping campers together with cohorts in small groups.”

Garaby says response since the school opened registration Feb. 15 has been outstanding, and she is expecting to fill all of camp’s openings.

“I hear from parents on a weekly basis that they are so excited we are offering in-person camps and are so looking forward to their daughters being around both new and old friends for the summer,” she adds.

It is the same story at Montgomery Bell Academy, which had more than 1,200 signups within the first six hours of registration.

Even prior to the pandemic, children were and are spending a good portion of their time in front of a screen, Garaby says. Add to it a year of almost exclusively online interaction, and parents are re-evaluating just how beneficial being away from other children continues to be.

A week or two in Warner Parks should be a welcome diversion after so much recent indoor activity.

-- Photograph Provided

“While we can get the basics of learning across to kids through a screen, kids are missing the social and emotional learning that is vital to childhood development,” Garaby says. “Parents are excited to have their children attending sessions in person. So many kids have been working in a remote and virtual setting for a full year that parents are reporting they just want an opportunity for their kids to be in a social setting again with their peers.”

Safety on site

Jeff and Sarah Carter own and operate Rockbrook sleepaway camp for girls in Brevard, North Carolina, which, like most camps last year, shut down in the early days of the pandemic as knowledge about the virus was evolving along with shortages in personal protection equipment and hand sanitizer.

The camp will be open this summer, thanks to increased knowledge, vaccine distribution and access to better resources, including a written “field guide” of best practices from The American Camp Association, which covers such topics as sanitation, non-pharmaceutical interventions (cohorts, mask wearing, hand washing, etc.), coronavirus testing and the role vaccines might play for camps.

COVID-19 testing is more readily available this summer, as well.

“We plan to ask all of our campers and staff to provide the results of a recent negative test before they arrive at camp,” Jeff Carter explains. “We have contracted to conduct spot screening coronavirus tests during our sessions, as well.

“Having the COVID-19 vaccine available to our counselors and staff also is different this year. While not a panacea, we believe having at least a portion of our camp community vaccinated will help us in our goal to maintain a COVID-free environment.”

From art to sports to academics, children will have more options this year than in 2020.

-- Photograph Provided

“A summer camp experience provides so much of what children have lost during this pandemic,” Carter continues. “They need extended time with peers, care-free days spent outside close to nature where they can romp and play instead of scrolling on their screens. They need to escape the worries of the current news cycle, to find themselves included and encouraged by a caring community.

“They simply need to be kids again, and have fun doing things in the real world.”

The number of campers at Harpeth Hall is limited this year, Garaby says, and management will be carefully monitoring the CDC, the state of Tennessee and Nashville’s reopening camp guidelines, following guidance as updated.

“We spent many hours establishing new COVID-specific policies, as well as updating some of our existing procedures,” Garaby notes. “We have four new summer policies, all that are COVID specific. And we are encouraged by research showing very little spread of COVID-19 at summer camp.”

Garaby says her camp will be asking campers to wear masks on campus (and bring along additional masks for during the day) and parents to complete a Summer Camp Community Health Pledge upon registration and to complete a daily COVID checklist.

As part of that checklist, parents will be asked to record their child’s temperature each morning before camp. Parents will also be asked to note any symptoms of illness their child might have and to keep her home if she is not feeling well.

“Further, we plan to assign campers to small groups,” Garaby says. “We will have these cohorts remain consistent throughout the weeklong session. Finally, in our staff training, we will be emphasizing the importance of proper hand hygiene and social distancing for all campers and staff.”

Lauren Reichstein, manager of camp and adventure programs with Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, says her group will be able to serve about 550 campers through a virtual program after not being able to operate camps in person last summer. She is hoping, she says, to also operate in-person camps this summer.

“All of the CDC guidance has been pretty consistent that it is safe to do that,” Reichstein says.

“Some of the bigger changes for us is we are operating under what are called a pod or a cohort system. And what that means is that the campers will be in a pod with very specific counselors, and those are the only people they’re really going to interact with the entire week.”

Virtual options continue

While some camps are in-person only, like Harpeth Hall, online-only options have joined other traditional camps in offering virtual camp experiences, as well as providing a platform for Middle Tennessee parents to access programming that might not have been an option before, like Treasure Trunk Theatre, a children’s theatrical enrichment program based in Brooklyn.

“While we run year-round programming, summer camps are always our busiest time,” says founder Elisa Pupko. “Last summer, due to COVID, we moved all our camps to Zoom and had a very successful summer season, all things considered.”

This year she says her organization is planning for an outdoor summer season with some virtual camps for those not in Brooklyn or who prefer to keep quarantining from others. And registration is already filling up.

“As a parent to a 3.5-year-old, I also know how desperate parents are to have their kids in a program outside the house this summer,” she says.

Reichstein says Treasure Trunk had a record number of registrations for camp this year – 300 the first day instead of the typical 100 – because the need is so great for families under unprecedented pressure.

“A lot of our families have not sent their campers to school for so many reasons,” says Reichstein, who is also the local chair of the National Council of Leaders for the American Camp Association. “Some schools have been in and out of quarantine. There has been limited social interaction. There has been a lot of need to just get outside, and camp can provide all of those things.

“Campers tend to come for the activities. But they stay because of those social connections. And in this space where we have been in the past year was for a lot of families, a lot of our kids, they’re not getting those social interactions as much as they could.

“And so summer camp is really important to continue to build those social skills, to continue to build those connections, to get our kids outside.”

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