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Baltimore Summer Camps Look to Past Lessons for Future Sessions

Image via Getty Images

While snowflakes may be getting ready to fall, it isn’t too early for parents to start planning for their children’s summer break and where, or even if, to send them for a camp program. While few would call 2020’s summer camp experience ideal, the potential of a coronavirus vaccine begs the question of what 2021 could hold in store for campers this summer.

Photo courtesy of J Camps, LLC

Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Baltimore

“We are planning for summer 2021 to look like summer 2019 (pre-pandemic) and still following the guidelines around COVID-19,” says Stacy Deems, assistant director of the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s J Camps program. If so, it would likely come as a relief to many children and parents who still remember the challenges of 2020’s camping season.

Unlike some other camp programs which chose to either cancel their summer offerings or make do with an online experience, the JCC chose to launch its Summer at the J program for the 2020 season, Deems says. An entirely outdoor program, Summer at the J featured different, two-week-long tracks for families to choose from. They included a track for sports, one for arts and a general track, along with a track for rising seventh and eighth graders.

Deems explained how campers participated in swimming every day while taking part in nature, science, arts, athletics and service projects, capping off the week with a Shabbat celebration on Fridays. Campers also had the choice to take part in the half-day J Tennis Academy or the CSA Karate Summer Experience, she says. Deems states that the “uncertainty of COVID and not having clear protocols early enough from the Maryland Department of Health was a large hurdle,” resulting in the JCC’s camp programming being delayed for two weeks.

When camp did begin at the JCC, temperature checks and health screenings were performed each morning, Deems says, while campers and staff members were grouped together into specific bunks or “pods” that stayed together for the duration of the two-week session. Activities were held outdoors, group sizes were kept small and staff took into consideration a child’s age when it was necessary to explain social-distancing procedures to them. Extra hand-washing stations were added, lunch periods were staggered and all staff wore masks while campers followed the state’s guidelines on mask wearing.

Deems gave the Summer at the J a grade of A on their response to the pandemic, noting how their camp had no COVID cases or shutdowns. At the same time, she gave the program’s staff, campers and families an “A+ for their resiliency, enthusiasm and trust they have shown to J Camps this past summer.”

Camps Airy and Louise

Courtesy of Camps Airy and Louise

At the same time, other groups took a different route. Due to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s mandate on residential camping, Camps Airy and Louise offered the community an online “community engagement” experience, says Jonathan Gerstl, Camps Airy and Louise’s executive director.

According to Gerstl, Camps Airy and Louise’s programming, which ran from the end of June to the beginning of August, included activities such as music, bingo, trivia games, challah making, yoga and hangouts with counselors.

“I think it was just figuring out with a lot of trial and throwing some darts to see what stuck with our community in terms of participation,” Gerstl says. He adds that “for not being in the online business, we did a really good job of engaging our community … I think we got more creative and better as the summer went on.”

Summer at Friends

Courtesy Friends School of Baltimore

Camps Airy and Louise were joined in the virtual space by the Summer at Friends camp, according to the camp’s director Steve Cusick, who spoke about the hour-long virtual classes involving such subjects as music, art and cooking, as well as activities that included trivia games, scavenger hunts and counselor story times.

According to Cusick, Summer at Friends was getting ready to celebrate its 60th anniversary when the pandemic began raising alarms. While the camp initially hoped that the situation would normalize, in the end, staff made the decision to pivot to online programming.

“We had a really good group of staff that worked well to come up with ideas for these programs that could translate to virtual,” Cusick says. “And then, we built a year’s worth of work in a handful of months to get everything up and running.”

Courtesy of Beachmont Christian Camp

Beachmont Christian Camp

By contrast, Beachmont Christian Camp held a “completely in-person” experience at its day camp for the summer of 2020, according to Ben Butanis, director of marketing and development at Beachmont Christian Camp.

Normally welcoming campers ages 4 to 13, Beachmont made a number of changes to account for the pandemic, Butanis says, including reducing group sizes from 30 and 40 children to 12 or 10 while hiring additional staff to organize the larger number of groups. Large group activities such as dodgeball were also reduced in size, while measures like temperature checks were instituted, staggered drop-offs and pickups were organized, and masks were required in the event camp was moved indoors for inclement weather.

One of the challenges staff faced this year, Butanis says, involved explaining to young children the importance of following social-distancing guidelines. “It can be tough,” Butanis says. “They’re usually very excited to see their friends, and they run up and high five and hug their friends.”

However, while he explained that it was something that “needed to be constantly taught and reinforced,” Butanis adds, “I think our staff really did a great job getting their kids excited about getting their masks on when they needed to have them on.”

Courtesy of Beachmont Christian Camp

Looking Forward

Regarding 2021, Deems says that organizers are preparing for their usual J Camps programs, expecting to reinstate their Late Stay and Early Drop-Off programs while adding “dynamic outside programming to our campus.” At the same time, Deems acknowledged the importance of staying “flexible” and making changes as necessary.

“We learned a lot from opening last summer,” Deems says, “and we are confident that we will be successful in 2021 as well.”

While Camps Airy and Louise are “projecting we’ll be open for the summer of 2021,” Gerstl says, many of the details have yet to be finalized. He expects there will be some mask wearing in certain places and some social distancing in the dining hall. In addition, the camp could place an emphasis on outdoor activities where air circulates more freely. Gerstl explains that the plans would become more detailed and specific with the approach of spring, availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, faster testing and new guidelines from the state on how camps can open safely.

At Summer at Friends, Cusick says that staff members are planning a summer 2021 in-person program, although they are “trying to build in as much flexibility as possible, to be responsive to any changes that happen with the public health crisis.” He specifically mentions outdoor recreation, science, art and swimming as components that Summer at Friends is “optimistic” about being included again.

Cusick adds that his camp is also planning to provide some online offerings as well for those unable to attend in person.

Lastly, Beachmont Christian Camp is also planning to have an in-person experience, Butanis says. He emphasizes that the shape of the experience would depend on the recommendations of leading experts and the state and county governments.

“As everything continues to evolve, and we understand more and more about the virus,” Butanis says, “we’ll make changes as necessary, as need be, to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to provide the best camp experience and to make sure that children attending camp are as absolutely safe as possible.”


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