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Will Summer Camp Happen This Year? Camp Directors Have to Hope

Coronavirus may cancel summer camp this year. What's lost when kids can't escape?

The trip up Sugar Hill Road in Wallingford, Vermont is a long, but pleasant. It winds through the Green Mountains, slaloming the trees at the bottom of  the wild forest slipping into their late spring and summer clothes — crocus, trillium, Dutchman’s breeches. A few winding turns after the intersection south of Wallingford, the pavement road turns to gravel and then mud, making it hard to pass before the sun and parents arrive in early June. The parents drive their kids here on the first day of summer camp, pausing in front of the metal gates adorned with wood lettering crafted to look like feathers, because they think there’s something profound and unique on offer. They want to give their kids independence, joy, social skills, and some time away from their screens. They want to give themselves something too — maybe a moment of peace or a chance to have sex in the living room. 

This is the entrance to Night Eagle Wilderness summer camp, and every year, the gates open wide. Tipis, bare in the off season, are wrapped in canvas. Camp director Bruce Moreton has manned the gates for 21 years now, and welcomes campers every year who are ready to get out of the world and into the woods. Fires are lit, throwing arching shadows against the trees. This year, the campers will be able to come to Night Eagle, but the camp itself will look a little different.

Wilderness camps offer kids an abridged and cheerful version of adulthood. Kids come back from America’s 8 400 overnight camps, which have historically hosted as many as 14 million boys, girls and employees, a summer, a little bit older and wiser. Many come back more confident. Some come back having won an archery competition or learned to spark a fire or kissed a fellow camper in the moonlight. These memories expand the possibilities of identity, of who they are at home. 

The first American summer camps opened for business in 1870. Much like the modern summer camp, these get-aways offered American kids — only boys at first — a way to escape modern life (the bleating victrolas), the stresses of school, and the watchful eyes of their parents. Summer camp has always been a practical indulgence, a place for children to learn resilience the way their grandparents probably didn’t but could have back in frontier days.

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If camp is adulthood as playdate, it’s also childhood as gauntlet. And Vermont is arguably the capital of camp. New England hosts over 500 of the more than 3,000 running summer camps across the country. The Green Mountain State has more than 50 ACA-accredited summer camps, in a state of just over 600,000. 

While Vermont Governor Phil Scott did issue a guidance for summer camps, including overnight and day camps, to re-open while under strict guidelines, limited capacity, and increased nursing and disinfectant measures, many, including Audubon Vermont and Camp Dudley near Burlington, have already canceled their summer offerings.

Now, in the aftermath of the American Camp Association, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Y-USA (see: YMCA) coming out with an 82-page guidance and opening decision tree for summer camps, it seems that camps can be a go in states across the country, Vermont obviously being one of them. But many camps are still in limbo, not sure if they’ll be able to offer the free-wheeling, expressive, and open experience that their camps offer.

The ACA guidances, which were released alongside the CDC and the YMCA, include increased hygiene practices, employees wearing face masks, ventilation of facilities, and encouraging social distancing, seems nearly impossible at free-wheeling camps like Sangamon or in the shared costumes and explosive gesticulating of the nearby Theatre in the Woods camp. There’s plenty that will need to be met in order for camps to reopen, and Governor Scott will now allow camps to re-open as long as they follow health guidelines and potentially limit the number of campers, might be hard to undertake, even if necessary. 

Like so many official statements lately, it’s a punt. The decision to open or not will fall squarely on the heads of camp owners and directors both financially dependent on and devoted to the wellbeing of their campers. Decisions will be hard. The camp employees and executives I spoke to while reporting this article were uniformly confused; wanting to open, waiting and seeing, committed to opening in some capacity, for the kids. 

Moreton made a decision after he spent most of the day combing the lengthy document and adapting the material to fight Night Eagle’s processes.

“At this point, there are four boys’ camps in Vermont that are planning to be open this summer,” he says. “Of those four, Night Eagle is by far the smallest and most primitive, and as odd as it may sound, that should make our job preventing the spread of the virus easier.” Moreton’s camps lack the dining halls, cabins, bathrooms, shared athletic equipment, and the sheer number of campers and staff. The only buildings they have, besides the tipis, are the food shelter, the crafts shed, and the nurse’s office. 

Campers at Night Eagle have always arrived in one group, with some staying for one week, others staying for two, and other groups staying for three to six weeks. There are no deliveries at camp, no visitors, and everyone stays all summer. All that will change is disinfecting the camp and not allowing the campers to share their belongings.

“For the first time this spring,” he says, after months of teetering, waiting for some kind of answer on whether or not he can open those gates, “I am looking forward to the summer and being back at Night Eagle with the campers.” The resolution follows months of uncertainty. Moreton is relieved.

After a 15-minute, winding walk from the cluster of solar-powered Lakota-style tipis that constitutes the heart of Night Eagle, campers come upon the placid waters of an unnamed lake and the kayaks shelved on the ridge of the waters. The kids come to the all-boys camp to hunt game, build treehouses deep into the woods, and get to know one another. They leave their phones with their parents.

“Boys need to learn to be boys with boys, and to respect each other,” says Moreton. “Respect for yourself; respect for the earth; respect for each other.” 

But can they learn that respect without putting their health and the health of camp employees at risk? That’s not clear. While teenagers have been less affected than other demographics by COVID-19, summer camps are clusters and risk is exponential. Even if the kids don’t get sick, the viral conflagration bodes ill for any parent picking up their camper after a happy few weeks.

You can’t, after all, quarantine a kid, though the ACA guidelines may explain how to do so — kids who get sick have to be kept several feet away from other kids in the nursing office; campers who came into contact with said kid must be quarantined, as well. Officials will be called in. These standards, like the standards behind child care centers across the country which require “socially distance recess,” seem impossible, and frankly, unenforceable, though necessary. Instead, the kids end up stuck with their phones and without summer jobs or access to the outdoors. 

There are “camps” that have tried to lean in to the fact that kids can’t be grimey in the woods. Camp Super Now is one of them — a “virtual” camp that offers Zoom “cabins” and virtual “camp counselors” who organize crafts, “field trips,” activities, and more for two weeks. Each camper must pay $200.00 to enroll to talk to strangers online, provide their own supplies (the website states the supply lists are short and can be made of items that are mostly around the house) and sit in their kitchen. More screen time is more screen time is more screen time. This is not why kids go to camp. 

Moreton, who teaches high school students in the offseason and tennis at Castleton University, has run Night Eagle Wilderness Camp for 21 years. He says that many of his campers don’t even tell their friends that they attend Night Eagle. It’s their space, they tell him, and their time to be themselves. Before the pandemic, kids spent, on average, three to seven hours a day with television and smartphones. But now, school is virtual. Kids spend all day on their computers from when they wake up to the end of their day and turn to other screens at the end of that because there’s not much else to do. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but to deal with all that and not be able to escape into a screen-less world for a few weeks would be a profound tragedy. 

By the time I met him in late April, Moreton had yet to prepare for the 2020 summer session. Trees needed to be pruned, brush needed to be moved, and tipis erected, but there are costs associated with those things. He was anxious about taking a loss, and sad because economics are an obstacle to him doing what he loves. He wanted to do what he does best. He wanted to steer kids into the mountains. It’s quiet up there; nearly silent, except for the sounds of birds and the wind. Now, quite thankfully, the sounds of teenage boys will fill the gaps of silence.

 

Night Eagle might not be in limbo anymore, many other camps are. The Sangamon Camp for Boys, in Pittsford, Vermont, has been open for 100 years. On May 20th, Jed Byrom, the owner of the camp, was spending the day on the phone with the ACA, the ACA’s environmental health consultants, with his sister, who runs the girls camp down the road. Whether or not they could open is still very much up in the air.

“It’s hard to imagine seeing a clear lane to opening, and on time,” he says. Most camps in Vermont have already closed their doors for the summer. He doesn’t want to cancel camp unless there’s no safe way to open. But there are scenarios, for him, where it could be safely done but it’s impossible for other reasons: if they say he can only have 20 kids, and everyone has to be in a mask, that would be safe, but he wouldn’t want to open.

All of those things, he tells me, pushes the camp so far away from what it is. Sangamon is a camp that teaches boys it’s okay to give each other hugs; that it’s okay to be physically, mentally, and emotionally close. That message would have to fundamentally change, even if campers want to come, even if they know they can’t give hugs or jump from activity to activity. Right now, he’s unsure of what the path forward will be. He’s unsure he can move forward in a way that would feel familiar to the campers; in a way that he’d feel good about. But he doesn’t want to close the camp, either.

Byrom can’t remember a time when it was closed. First started by his grandfather 1921, the camp has always been a family business. Byrom nherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father; Byrom’s sister runs the girls camp down the road. Byrom went to the camp and his kids did too, but this year, they may go alone, just him and his daughters in the Pittsford woods.

Byrom has a philosophy that informs the way his camp is run: The less structure, the better. He’s offering the antidote to the pressures exerted by the $18 billion and growing extracurricular industrial complex — all that time spent beefing up resumes in order to deliver red meat to admissions officers.

“At Sangamon, you don’t have to stay anywhere. If you go to photography and you’re there for five minutes and you want to leave? Off you go,” he says. “We regiment kids’ lives and don’t allow them the chance to figure out what they’re doing. And nowhere are conflicts allowed to happen and be resolved without intervention in a kid’s life these days. We provide a safe space where kids can experiment with who they are. To be different people. And to decide to do whatever they want.”

The freedom that kids would have somewhere like Camp Sangamon would be limited. In Pittsford, campers can flit from one activity to the other, hang out with whoever they want, spreading their kid germs everywhere and anywhere. They don’t have to “be” anybody or “do” anything. The ACA guidelines strictly forbid cross-contamination of camp groups as much as possible. The mission statement of Camp Sangamon for Boys, Inc., will naturally be stilted.

The camp might have to become structured, to keep kids in separate groups, might have to shut down the basketball court to enforce social distancing, might have to limit contact sports. (Jed laments the lack of tag at schools, and offers his camp as a way in on the more traditional ‘child’ experience of horsing around and being a goofball.) 

A pandemic turns down the hippy vibes like nothing else. Sometimes, sacrificing some freedom for safety is the responsible thing to do — especially when it’s a child’s safety.

Kids would still be outside. They’d still be escaping the stress of their daily lives. But the ever-present threat of a deadly pandemic will hang over their heads as campers in one group can’t see another, or have staggered pick-ups and drop-offs, or can’t use a baseball because too many hands touching it means too many germs. Nurses and counselors might wear masks. Fewer kids will be there. It won’t be the same. 

 

The American Camp Association — the national wing that oversees state-wide camp associations that set health and safety standards as well as guidelines for ACA-accredited summer camps stalled and stalled. Prior to the release of the May 18 guidelines, which are still pretty vague (“develop procedures to check kids and employees for symptoms of COVID daily,” “enhance screening for kids in areas of high transmission,” “regularly communicate with local authorities,” “implement work flexibility,”), the organization had been loath to present camp directors with a suit of less than savory choices. In lieu of a decision, on their website, they stated that camp directors should “stay up to date on the latest information for coronavirus and communicable disease prevention and management”

The three conditions that have to be met for camps to open under the new ACA guidelines — that re-opening is consistent with state and local orders, that camps can protect kids and employees at a higher risk of illness, and that camps screen all children and employees upon arrival — don’t set the bar particularly high for camps, which largely means that it’s up to camp directors to take on financial risk while assessing the strength of demand. Parents, after all, might be justifiably reluctant to let kids attend. They also might be desperate to get them out of their hair, too.

After learning that Governor Scott was open to letting camps operate this summer, Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman was ecstatic. But then she read the guidelines: no sharing, no touching objects, keeping kids separate.

“In the end, we are a theater camp,” Chesnut-Tangerman, camp director of the Theatre in the Woods out in Middletown Springs, Vermont, says. “To be masked (required for adults and recommended for the kids), to minimize physicality in scenes, to not share costumes, never mind putting hands together in clay in the brook. It wouldn’t be near enough a semblance of the world we’re used to sharing in July.”

Chesnut-Tangerman wrote an email to the parents letting them know her camp would be unable to open.

“Can you hear the heartbreak?” she asks, rhetorically. “Without herd immunity or vaccine, to gather people together, and to always be on guard and concerned about whether our camp could become a vector to spread COVID-19, it just wasn’t the responsible thing to do.”

For the first time in five years, kids won’t be able to come to their spot in the woods, to be creative, to be weird, to be unafraid of the trappings of their normal lives and their normal days. They rarely have that freedom elsewhere. 

“We won’t have Zoom camp,” she adds. “There’s just no way.” 

 Others will. Summer camp is a $13 billion dollar industry. In a survey by CampMinder, more than half of summer camps charged more than $400 a week per camper, and the majority of camps bring in more than $500,000 a year in revenue. Much of that is eaten up by the sheer cost of running a camp. Still, the average camp, according to the ACA, runs a profit of $91,500 per camping season (while propping up local businesses). There are archery ranges and campfires in those hills — also, gold.

Online coding camps, or virtual camps like Camp Super Now, and STEM offerings promise to keep kids occupied via Zoom in an air conditioned living room. But Byrom, Moreton, and others find this option unappealing and beside the point. 

Chesnut-Tangerman regrets not being able to offer kids the chance to come and be creative in the woods. Moreton is relieved to be opening, glad to continue to resist the program-ification of modern summer camps: the sailing camps that have private chefs, the soccer camps with intensive training, the tennis camps with former pros.His is a 21-year-old resistance. His commitment is old enough to drink.

Byrom had trouble with the obviously important health guidance of keeping campers to their groups of 10 kids, of not letting intermingling take place. It’s just that that guidance runs counter to the reason the camp exists.But still, making choices is part of the Camp Sangamon for Boys experience. Making choices without any blowback, any consequence. The ability of kids to, unlike in any other part of their lives, do whatever the hell makes them happy in the moment, would be limited. That’s a tough pill for Byrom to swallow. In the end, a few days after we spoke about the new guidances, Byrom would decide to close the camp for the summer. It’s not difficult to see why. 

 

One October a few years ago, Byrom needed to head up to the campground to clean. His daughter, then 6, asked to go with him, because she had thought of camp the way she had always seen it: filled to the brim with kids, friends, a basketball court, counselors, her parents. She naturally expected to see the same thing. When the pair pulled up to Camp Lane, no one was there.

“Where is all the everybody?” she demanded.

She refused to visit the camp after that. She wouldn’t go without the kids there. 

Byrom told me this story while showing me around an empty campground. His daughter, now 9, was walking next to him. She can’t avoid the discomfort of seeing an empty camp any longer. Her dad works in one.

It’s hard for him too, but he’s been here before.

Byrom was 26 in 2001. After 9/11, he says that insurance premiums of camps quadrupled in Vermont. 9/11 was considered an “extreme event” by actuaries and the cost of premiums skyrocketed into what is referred to as a “hard market.” Camps couldn’t afford premiums on their businesses — the expensive business of housing kids and keeping them safe — and many camps shuttered as a result.  A summer out of business might functionally close down many camps who won’t be able to recoup costs on a whole season of lost profits. Camps that saved for a rainy day in 2001 were able to make it through. He’ll be able to make it through this, but doesn’t think every Vermont camp will. 

“Some camps that close this summer will be closed for good,” he says, adding, “None of us are in it for the money.” Governor Scott has released several million in loans to camps, overnight and day, across Vermont to help prop up a critical industry. Kids will come. Probably fewer and certainly farther between, but they’ll still show up to the gates eager for an experience that throws their day-to-day concerns into sharp relief.  

But camp will be different this year and unstructured camps doubly so. The supply of opportunities for irresponsibility and whimsy can’t meet the demand. Campers will still canoe and woodwork and chase each other through the woods, but they’ll likely do so while wearing masks. Camps can still offer kids the chance to engage in a variety of healthy behaviors, but they can’t offer the escape they once did. There’s no such thing as a break from reality — not even in Vermont.