Opening Camp During the Pandemic: Looking Back Two Years Later
March of 2020 will be studied in history books. Of course, the lead up and the subsequent years of the new pandemic era will as well. But as we look back now two years later to what, to me, feels both like a lifetime ago and a blink of an eye, we reflect on the gift that camp provided to children. It was a time of fear, isolation, and confusion that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United State brought to all of us. Of course, as of this writing, the pandemic has not ended; with thousands of people testing positive for the virus and approximately 2000 people dying every day. It is clear that the pandemic will likely become endemic, with the availability of approved safe and effective vaccines for children and adults and treatments widely available. Mask mandates are in flux nationwide with many states opening travel, businesses, and schools. Masking/vaccinations sadly remains a contentious discussion amongst many in the world, but as the coronavirus has taken so many lives and disrupted the entire world, we want to pause to remember, reflect, and live in the moment.
Let’s start by being present – the pandemic and its subsequent effects on the world – especially children, has been a challenge. As much of life returns to normal, there are millions of families who lost loved ones to the coronavirus. The pandemic has brought hardships within society that many may never have experienced before. Safety precautions also led to many school and business closures. We are experiencing a mental health crisis that we will never truly understand the effects for years to come. However, as the world is returning to a sense of normalcy the pandemic has also reminded us to care for ourselves, our families, and the most vulnerable in our communities. Many have begun to engage in social justice, environmentalism, and public health. I believe that it made us all a little bit more grateful for those around us. Think of the time you were first able to hug or embrace friends and family after the first few months of quarantine or isolation? The incredible power that moment must invoke in your memory.
So let’s talk about camp back in March of 2020. We were planning, going full steam ahead and were ready to go. Our bunks were mostly full and had a waitlist for staff. We began planning our schedules and working on trips for the summer. This was a time when collectively, the world had no idea what was to come. Making the decision about whether to open camp was hard. Every day felt like a week and our collective anxiety about the summertime crept into our minds. What do we do? How would we open? Could we still have camp at the same/normal level? We constantly spoke to our parents, local officials in the state of Maine, and awaited guidelines. We worked with other camp directors to make the best decisions for our program. We’d zoom with our campers and they would ask gut-wrenching questions like, “will I be able to come to Wekeela this summer?” We did not really have the answers. The Maine community was very split on decisions, and as the spring moved forward, there was no clear decision in place. In Mid-April, when camps were in the final phase of planning, Maine’s Governor Janet Mills laid out specific policies that needed to be in place. Some camps had made the decision to close, some were waiting on guidelines to make a realistic choice for their program. I give Lori and Ephram, Wekeela’s directors, a lot of credit to decide to open, it was a decision fraught with risks. After seeing the guidelines, Wekeela decided that to provide the safest and best experience for our community, we should and could open. It was a decision not based on economics, but on the well-being of the campers.
Schools closed and children went into the fully virtual, isolated zoom classrooms, becoming robbed of social experiences and face-to-face learning. It was an isolating and scary time for so many children (and adults) and looking at the power of summer camp, the experience was absolutely necessary and worth the risk. We felt confident that we could cope with the health and safety procedures involved in testing, masking, co-horting, and changing the schedules to accommodate COVID-19. After a few weeks of planning, we offered families a chance to make the decision for their family. We pushed our opening date to July 9th, allowing for 14-day staff training in accordance to state guidelines, and a 5 week total summer for campers.
Looking back at our decision two years later, we feel it was a leap of courage and faith for our camp community. All together, we lost about sixty international staff members we had hired before March and had to replace them with American staff, many who had never worked at Wekeela before. The support of our campers, staff, and parents, who gave us a sense of normalcy in the face of fear and uncertainty was extraordinary.
Two years later, as the pandemic is still ongoing, we are excited for a new era of camp, one built on the powers of Camp Wekeela: friendship, memories, incredible activities, and of course, safety. As we turn towards summer 2022, with vaccines wildly available for campers 5+, in order to keep our community safe and to return to the highest degree of normalcy, we will require all campers and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. We feel this is the way for our campers and staff to engage in off-camp activities; free and open interaction with others; and feel safe in the event of another COVID-19 variant.
We love our camp community and are grateful for the support of our camp families.