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Delaware Heads Back to Nature as Summer Camps Plan to Reopen

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Although there may be fewer attendees amid a second year of COVID-19, Delaware summer camps prepare for an active and safe season.

As he looks forward to the summer of 2021, Walt Lafontaine is one happy camper.

Last spring, he had to make the wrenching decision not to open Camp Arrowhead—the largely residential summer camp he runs on the western shore of Rehoboth Bay—for the COVID-19–haunted summer of 2020. This year, he was quick to announce the happy news to worried parents that Arrowhead would indeed be open, albeit on a reduced scale, this upcoming summer. Spots were filled in fewer than three days.

In a normal summer, Camp Arrowhead, in operation since 1954, hosts about 1,300 campers; that number may be reduced by half this year.

“I had to do some parent counseling for those whose children didn’t get in,” Lafontaine says. “[But] if the situation looks better during the spring, we will increase those numbers.” 

A year into a pandemic that’s changed nearly every aspect of American life, many Delaware camps are expressing excitement at the prospect of reopening this summer, even if on a limited basis. A few considered some form of virtual camping but ultimately decided kids were tired of screens and distance learning. Exercise and fresh air were what kids wanted—needed.

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Delaware’s camp experience echoes what’s been happening nationwide, says Tom Rosenberg, CEO of the 110-year-old American Camp Association (ACA) based in Martinsville, Indiana.  “There were more day camps operating last summer than there were overnight camps, partially because some state regulations didn’t permit overnight camps,” he explains. To get a more accurate overview of what was happening in the country’s camps, the ACA commissioned several health and economic studies last season. One finding that surprised Rosenberg was that overnight camps had even better health records than did day camps. “They apparently were able to operate in their own bubbles,” he says.  

However, in spite of best efforts by camp operators, the ACA estimates that nearly 20 million kids who would otherwise have attended summer camps missed out last year. (About 60 percent of day camps remained in operation, compared to only 18 percent of overnight camps.)

Delaware camps shared a similar experience in 2020—fewer campers (from preschoolers to teens) to allow for distancing, no road trips or overnight activities, and generally fewer and shorter camp days. 

Delaware Nature Society (DNS) was no exception. “Last summer’s camps lifted all of our spirits during a very difficult time,” says executive director Anne Harper. “It was really a delight to see kids outside enjoying nature.” But while DNS typically hosts close to 1,400 campers each summer, 2020 saw only 800 across its facilities at Ashland Nature Center, the DuPont Environmental Education Center on the Christina River and Coverdale Farm Preserve near Wilmington, as well as at Abbott’s Mill, just east of Milford. Weeks dropped from 11 to nine, and the usual overnights in the lodge and nature field trips were put on hold. (It’s important to note that no cases of COVID-19 were reported among the campers or counselors.) The 2021 agenda continues to evolve, with an 8-to-1 ratio of campers to counselors. “Our plan is to first honor any state restrictions, but then expand if that is permitted,” Harper says. “If they change, we will change.” 

The scope of DNS classes is vast, and many are tailored to meet campers’ individual interests, which include fishing, camping, growing food, stargazing, nature photography and the very popular Harry Potter–inspired program, “Wizards and Lizards.”

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While new protocols may be similar across other camps in Delaware, their locations and activities vary greatly. At Hagley Museum and Library, kids can sign up for one of two theme camps held beside Brandywine Creek. “Life Long Ago” explores the lives of mill workers and their families during the 1800s at the former DuPont black powder yards and in nearby worker villages. The other is an academic camp exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities, such as firing off powder charges and making barrels and water wheels.

New Castle County Summer Camps, which took a break in 2020, plan to be in-person this year and to divide camps into recreational activities, like horseback riding at its Carousel Park and an all-sports camp offering nine different activities. Some will be offered virtually, says NCC Community Services manager Jane Rattenni, including “Safety Town,” a camp addressing family-safety practices for kids ages 4 through 6.

YMCA of Delaware will resume camps at all 12 of its locations across three counties, says Deborah Bagatta-Bowles, CEO of the statewide organization. “Normally, we have about 3,000 campers, but last year that was cut in half,” she says, noting the hope for a slight increase in 2021. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) offers camps for kids as young as 4, with locations at the Brandywine Zoo as well as in its parks at White Clay, Bellevue, Wilmington, Lums Pond, Trap Pond and Cape Henlopen. 

Regardless of activity or venue, safety and hygiene will remain key priorities. DNREC’s community relations coordinator Shauna McVey says that all campers will be required to take a COVID-19 test two weeks in advance of attending camp, and counselors will continue to screen each day through temperature checks and a brief questionnaire.  

Social distancing, face coverings and hand hygiene will also be mandatory at all camps. Many will not offer transportation by buses, and enrollment to allow distancing will again be reduced unless Gov. John Carney relaxes state requirements.

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Photo courtesy of Delaware Nature Society

Another safety protocol that’s proved effective is limiting inter-group activities between campers. “Last year, children had to stay in their own cohorts for the week and not flow from one group to another as they had previously,” explains the YMCA’s Bagatta-Bowles. If there was a silver lining in addition to being safer, she says, it’s that it allowed campers to build stronger bonds with those in their groups by spending more time together.

Camp Arrowhead’s Lafontaine agrees. “Our program is decentralized,” he says, “so our counselors stay with their [same] kids throughout camp, through all their activities.”

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time the state’s camps have had to be attentive to communicable disease, ACA’s Rosenberg points out. Having dealt with the H1N1 swine flu in 2009, there was already some level of preparedness. 

“It’s important that we understand what to do,” Rosenberg adds, “because kids learn well in situations where they feel safe.” In this regard, the ACA has updated it field guide for 2021.

One thing that might be different this year is that many parents will feel more comfortable about sending their kids to camp than they did in 2020. “Some parents weren’t ready last summer,” Bagatta-Bowles says. Another factor, says Carrie Kee, camp and recreation director at the Siegel Jewish Community Center, is that “some families tried to hold on to what camps were instead of what camps are now. But most were thrilled that we continued to run the program.” She also notes that the JCC was able to expand its camp space last summer to allow extra distancing and potentially extra campers.

As with most segments of the state, both camps and camping families faced economic impacts as a result of pandemic. The ACA estimates that camps across the U.S. suffered a $16 billion loss in revenue. Whether or not camps—most of which are underwritten by state and local governments or by nonprofits—operate in the black in 2021, capacity restrictions make certain that 2021 will generate less income than in prior years.

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“We all feel good about how we’ve handled safety [yet] continued to have fun,” says Bagatta-Bowles. “But now we need to work on the financial end.” That includes recognizing parents who may have experienced job or income loss. Camping costs vary. Basic costs at New Castle County camps, for example, are $130 a week with aftercare available for an additional $35. The JCC charges $310 a week for members and $335 for non-members, while overnight camping and food at Camp Arrowhead for a week is $675. Most camps have some form of financial aid program, however, and Arrowhead’s Lafontaine notes, “I don’t think we’ve ever turned a needy kid away. There’s always a way.”

Delaware’s other residential camping facility, Camp Barnes, nestled on a tributary of Little Assawoman Bay in Sussex County, is a free summer camp operated by the Delaware State Police. Closed in 2020, it plans to be open again in 2021.

For her part, the JCC’s Kee wants parents to begin visualizing a brighter summer for 2021. In an online “Letter from the Director,” Kee writes, “You pull into the ‘J,’ and you are near the front of the carline. Camp staff greet you with a smile (behind their masks) and their eyes are shining bright. After the required…health screening, your child goes off with friends they will have for life. You are on your way, feeling confident that your child is in great hands and ready for the summer of a lifetime.”

Or, as Camp Arrowhead’s Lafontaine says of his excitement about again having in-person camping in 2021, “It’s a lot better than trying to make s’mores virtually.”