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COVID-19 pandemic could leave kids without summer camps

Delaware Public Media

Many summer staples may be significantly altered or completely absent this year.

That includes summer camps, which could have a big impact on some families that rely on them to give their kids something to do once school lets out.

Contributor Larry Nagengast looks at where summer camps stand as the state starts to slowly reopen.


Imagine a sky with no stars, a beach with no sand, a morning without coffee … or a summer without camps.

The stars, the sand and the coffee aren’t likely to disappear, but this might be the year that thousands of kids – and their parents – experience a camp-free summer.

After having two camping opportunities for her daughters canceled, Risha Gordon has stopped looking. “We’re under the assumption that we’re not going to do any camps at all,” the Brandywine Hundred parent says. Due to their location and themes, “the ones that may remain open aren’t the ones we would have used anyway,” she says.

Matt Sullivan of Pike Creek is still holding out hope. The basketball camp his 14-year-old son has attended for the last few years hasn’t posted any registration announcements yet. The space camp his 9-year-old daughter was going to attend has been canceled. The operators of the summer dance and theater programs she signed up for are hoping to open, albeit a bit later than usual, but nothing is certain yet.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, from Wilmington to Lewes, the summer camping forecast is cloudy, with more than a slight chance of rain.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Hagley Museum is among the places that have already canceled their camps this year

Some operations, including Camp Arrowhead in Lewes, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware, Hagley Museum, and the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay, have already announced that they are canceling both day and overnight camping programs for the summer.

“Factors such as staffing, supply, distancing, and so many others played into this outcome. Every time we evaluated how the summer could run under these conditions, either the program or safety were compromised, and we were not willing to take the chance to jeopardize either,” Walt Lafontaine, Camp Arrowhead’s executive director, wrote in a message to campers and their families earlier this month.

Other camp sponsors are hoping to open as the current state of emergency restrictions are relaxed. Phase 1 of the state’s economic reopening plan, scheduled to begin June 1, does not permit summer camps to open. Phase 2 could begin no earlier than June 15.

“Typically, we would be set to open June 15, but honestly we’re looking at July 1,” says Kim Anderson, youth development program director at the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Tech is still assessing what it will do with its summer camps, but is developing virtual options.

“On Friday [May 22], we’ll be looking at our June 15 start dates” to decide whether to cancel or move ahead, says Paul Morris, who oversees summer camps at Delaware Technical Community College in his role as associate vice president for workforce development. The college will continue that process throughout the summer, hoping to give families about four weeks’ notice of cancellations.

The YMCA of Delaware has canceled its overnight programming at Camp Tockwogh in Worton, Maryland, for June in part due to the complexity of dealing with coronavirus restrictions in two states, but hopes to open the site in July, says Deborah Begatta-Bowles, the organization’s executive director. They are also hoping for a June 15 start for day camps, but will likely delay until after the Fourth of July weekend if a definite decision can’t be made by June 1, she says.

Camps operated by New Castle County government are also in a holding pattern, waiting for guidance from the governor and monitoring the safety of their facilities.“We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to offer some level of summer camp and we are working to develop protocols and operational procedures to ensure the safety and health of our staff and campers,” says Brian Cunningham, chief of staff to County Executive Matt Meyer.


"I can't trust other people. I can only trust the system." - Matt Sullivan, parent

As parents wait anxiously for scheduled camps to reopen, or search for alternatives to those that have been canceled, safety concerns are paramount.

The YMCA has been getting two types of calls from parents, Begatta-Bowles says. One group is saying “please just tell us you’ll be open” and the other wants to know “what are you going to do differently? How can you assure me?”

“I don’t know what’s going to be safe, and socially distancing appropriate,” says Gordon, citing one reason for not seeking other options for her children. “We don’t know what others are doing, but we’re doing our best.”

“It doesn’t help that theater kids are hugging kids, and they’re doing artsy things getting together in small groups,” Sullivan says.

“I can’t trust other people, I can only trust the system,” he adds, explaining he will only send his children to camps that he knows and trusts this summer.

In addressing parental concerns, camp operators are using the state’s reopening guidelines and advisories from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Begatta-Bowles rattles off a quick list of procedures: “curbside drop-offs and pick-ups, temperature checks, handwashing and sanitizing stations, working with groups of 10 or less, kids staying with their cohort groups for most of the day.”

Similar procedures will be in place at West End, Anderson says, adding that social distancing restrictions will likely require cutting summer enrollments from around 110 youths down to 34 or 35.

Both the YMCA and West End have been operating childcare programs for the families of essential workers for nearly two months. Begatta-Bowles and Anderson say that implementing precautionary measures for the childcare operations will serve as a dry run for how they will manage summer programs.

Darlene Cummings, owner of the American Dance Academy in Hockessin, will have to take some extra steps because her program takes place in indoor studios. Besides temperature checks and using hand sanitizers before and after class, new measures include eliminating the waiting room for parents, placing chairs six feet apart in a hallway, and having students bring their own water bottles (instead of using the fountain) and snacks (no sharing allowed). In addition, she has purchased footprint-shaped stickers to place on the floor of the studio, so each dancer has a reminder to say in place.

She’s also waiting on guidance about wearing masks, which is currently not a requirement for preteens. “Little kids will want to touch masks, which means they will want to touch their faces more. If they have to wear masks, they will have to keep them on for the entire period,” she says.

"I don't gamble with other peoples' kids." - Walt Lafontaine, Camp Arrowhead executive director

But even those precautions wouldn’t have been enough to ensure a safe summer for the 1,300 youths who spend time each year at Camp Arrowhead, director Lafontaine says. Opening would have required giving up so many of the camp’s traditional activities – things like beachfront campfires and luaus that bring together 70 or more youngsters at a time. Securing all the needed sanitation supplies when there are shortages nationwide was also an issue.


And then there’s the matter of the camp’s staff. Arrowhead usually hires 10 or so counselors from European nations, but current immigration and travel restrictions might have kept them from coming. And, with an overnight camp, counselors do need time off – and they’d likely be spending much of their time in Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Ocean City, Maryland, heightening the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“I don’t gamble with other peoples’ kids,” Lafontaine says. The camp can’t afford to go the entire summer without any revenue, he adds, so they’re looking at hosting movie nights or renting some cabins to families to maintain cash flow.

Some camp operators are considering offering virtual programming if they can’t safely open on site.

Delaware Tech is developing virtual programming based on five themes – computers, arts and crafts, baking and cooking, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and sports – but details haven’t been worked out yet, Morris says.

Credit Delaware Public Media
The Delaware Museaum of Natural History is among the places offering virtual summer camps this year.

The same goes for the Delaware Museum of Natural History. “We’re trying to determine what we can create as a quality virtual experience that is both educational and fun. It has to be enjoyable,” says camp coordinator Megan Stern. “We’re definitely not taking what we would have done on site and trying to translate it into a full day online. That’s just not a best practice.”

Both Delaware Tech and the museum say that, if virtual programming occurs, it will include preparing learning kits that families will have to pick up in advance so kids have the materials they need to work on projects at home.

Cummings is also considering virtual activities as an alternative is she can’t open the doors to her academy. She envisions offerings with a beach party theme for younger dancers and fun-type activities with more emphasis on stretching and techniques for older students. Making the transition to virtual camping won’t be a big problem for her since she has been offering virtual classes for her year-round students since April.

With parents working from home (if they’re fortunate enough to still have their jobs) and youngsters looking for enjoyable ways to pass the time, there’s potential for plenty of family stress this summer.

While Gordon sees the value of more together time for the family, both she and her husband using their laptops for work and the children – 12-year-old Dayvey and 7-year-old Dorsey – will be looking for attention or asking when they can get on the internet. “Things fall off the rails, and sometimes I’m working well into the evening,” she says.

"Camp isn't just a place to put them. We see it as a way to make new friends and learn new skills." - Risha Gordon, parent

Sullivan is concerned about how the summer will wear on his children, Nate and Chloe. “They’re doing OK so far,” he says, but with a five-year age difference, “it’s not like they’re each other’s best friends.”

Both Gordon and Sullivan lament that missing summer camp means for their children.

“Camp isn’t just a place to put them. We see it as a way to make new friends and learn new skills,” Gordon says.

Last summer, she says, Dayvey learned CPR in a program at the Jewish Community Center and she was hoping Dorsey could learn to swim this year in a camp at the Tatnall School.

Sullivan credits music camps at the University of Delaware with helping Nate become a better saxophonist while Chloe “blossomed on stage” during theater camp and “walked out with more confidence.”

This year, in all likelihood they’ll need new alternatives.

For now, uncertainty prevails.

“Everyone’s walking on eggshells right now,” says West End’s Anderson. “How is it going to look? How is it going to feel.”

“Let’s just hope we can make our way through this,” dance instructor Cummings says.

(For updated information on camp schedules, check the individual links included in this article.)

This story initially reported that overnight YMCA programming at Camp Tockwogh in Worton, Maryland was completely cancelled. It has been updated to reflect the YMCA hopes to open the site in July. Delaware Public Media apologizes for the error.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.