Camp Manitou

Plan Summer Camp During COVID in 2021: One Camp’s Approach

As the co-owner and director of Camp Manitou, an all-boys camp in Central Maine, Jon Deren’s experience during summer 2020 was equal parts rewarding and challenging. This isn’t likely to change next summer. While he was able to successfully run camp, he also knows that ever-changing circumstances mean that planning a path for next year’s summer camp during COVID poses just as many unknowns.  

Like every other camp director, Deren faced the same decision in early spring of 2020 that all his peers faced: run camp during a pandemic, or cancel for the summer. Ultimately, Deren was able to run a five-week session without any cases of the Coronavirus. How did he do it? 

  • Consulted with medical professionals and followed official state guidance
  • Established frequent and transparent communication with parents
  • Required pre-camp quarantines for campers and staff along with symptom screening and pre-arrival testing
  • Created on-site health, hygiene, and sanitation practices backed by testing and symptom screening plans
  • Made adjustments to camp schedules with a focus on outdoor activities and small groups
  • Enforced a closed community and had systems in place should a positive case emerge

The path to next year’s summer camp during COVID-19 will require that Deren take on these same steps and new ones, regardless of the number of cases across the nation or the availability of a vaccine.

Deren knows, as we all do, that there’s no way to predict exactly what next summer will be like. What we can be sure of is that the need for camp has never been greater and that health and safety, both physical and mental, are the top priorities for camps. The more we can learn from camp directors like Deren, who were able to avoid positive cases in 2020, the better equipped our industry will be to give kids the camp experiences they so desperately need in 2021 and beyond.

Communicate with Parents about COVID-19 at Summer Camp

Deren says that as soon as it became obvious that camp was going to be significantly impacted by COVID-19, he had to decide how to best communicate with parents. He didn’t want to over-communicate, especially since information was changing all the time. He also knew that parents had access to the same news he did, so he only wanted to reach out when he had significant developments to share.

Deren started with an every-other-week email cadence to keep parents informed and to explain his process. He was transparent that he was following Maine’s official state regulations as well as guidance from his support team of camp doctors, nurses, and trainers.

Another element of this transparent approach was giving parents a specific timeline for his decision-making process. From his perspective as the manager of all camp logistics, Deren had to nail down a decision date that would then give him, his staff, and families enough lead time to get ready for the first day of camp. This start date also had to comply with Maine’s phased reopening of its economy.

Choosing a specific date and sharing that information with camp parents gave him a reliable answer for the inevitable question from parents about when they would know for sure if they could send their kids to camp. As summer approached, Deren increased his communication frequency to an email each week and on June 4th he made the official announcement that camp would open for a five-week session. 

Choosing a specific decision date and sharing that information with camp parents gave him a reliable answer for the inevitable question from parents about when they would know for sure if they could send their kids to camp.

Create a COVID-free Bubble at Summer Camp

Deren says that there was a multi-layered approach to choosing to run camp, starting with confidence from Camp Manitou’s medical team that the risk for contracting COVID-19 was low for healthy kids. Higher-risk campers and staff did not attend, and Deren and Manitou’s medical team partnered to develop protocols that would mitigate risk. 

This process started at home for both campers and staff. 

Before Camp

  1. Campers committed to a 14-day quarantine leading up to their arrival. 
  2. One week before camp they had to report any symptoms and temperatures via a screening form. 
  3. Four days prior to camp, every camper took a saliva-based PCR test under the virtual supervision of a nurse and using the same testing company. 

Once at Camp

After two rounds of negative tests, and 14 days into the five-week session, Deren felt confident that they had established a safe bubble. Still, he and his team stuck to their protocols and kept measures in place in case an issue arose. Masks were required if campers were indoors with anyone outside their cohort or if they were outside and not socially distanced.

After this bubble was established, anyone presenting a symptom associated with COVID-19 was rapid-tested and monitored until the symptom improved. Anyone with a fever was isolated and could only re-enter camp after being fever-free for 24 hours. A smaller camp within walking distance to Manitou that was closed this summer was used as a quarantine facility. Had this location not been available, Deren was prepared to make other facility adjustments, including renting trailers or converting empty buildings.

Deren emailed all parents every morning – it was known that he would email them if there was a positive case so they could assume that no news was good news. Individual parents were notified whenever their child came into the health center for any reason.

All told, 285 campers attended Manitou in 2020 and there were no positive tests all summer. Deren says that in terms of health center visits, it was the healthiest summer he can recall. He attributes this in-part to campers’ limited exposure beyond their families before camp, and to mask-wearing and hand-washing on-site. 

Mandate Camp Staff and COVID-19 Precautions

Once Deren and his medical team created a plan to help campers arrive healthy and stay that way, they adapted it to work for camp staff as well.

  1. Counselors were tested four days prior to arrival
  2. Counselors arrived 15 days prior to camper arrival day and were kept in groups of four until they had tested negative twice.
  3. Until the second negative test, all training was outdoors.
  4. Masks were worn at all times in that stretch, except at meals which were eaten outside.

One major shift was keeping counselors on-site all summer. Typically, staff are allowed time off campus. This summer they weren’t permitted to leave. Deren says that keeping all counselors on-site all summer long actually created a deeper level of camaraderie among them. Instead of developing close friendships with just a few other staff during their nights off, they spent more time as a larger unit and developed really strong bonds.

Another important factor for Deren leading to his decision to run 2020 summer camp during COVID-19 was whether or not he could provide campers with a meaningful and significant camp experience.

Adjust Camp Activities While Still Providing Meaningful Experiences

Another important factor for Deren leading to his decision to run 2020 summer camp during COVID-19 was whether or not he could provide campers with a meaningful and significant camp experience. It was this goal that underscored the adjustments he made to activities and schedules. 

  1. Campers were outside nearly all day, and competitive physical activities were extremely limited during the first week. 
  2. Activities were coordinated so campers would stay with their cohort. At first, cohorts were limited to bunks. After all testing was completed, cohorts expanded to age groups. 
  3. Masks were used the few times campers were indoors or around others not in their cohort, such as large outdoor gatherings like camp fires.
  4. To protect the bubble, all off-site excursions were cancelled
  5. Visitor’s day was replaced with virtual visits, where each camper was allowed a 20-minute video chat with families. Brother/Sister days with Manitou’s neighboring sister camp went virtual as well.
  6. Meal time was broken up into three groups, two rotating groups in the dining hall with socially distanced tables and another group outdoors. 
  7. A temporary outdoor dining hall provided space for outdoor eating and ventilation was increased in the indoor mess hall.

Some of these changes were so positive that they will be implemented moving forward. Deren plans to maintain the outdoor focus for activities that had been indoors in previous summers. The outdoor dining hall was so popular that he’s investing in a permanent structure ahead of next summer. Most importantly, while camp played out in different ways, Deren says that the core elements of camp  – connection, friendship, being outdoors, being tech-free, and having caring counselors – were all still both achievable and needed. 

Looking Ahead to 2021 Summer Camp During COVID-19

Deren’s first summer at Manitou was in 1987, and he’s owned camp with a former bunk mate for the last 22 years. He is all camp, all the time, and knows how important Camp Manitou is to his campers. His camp leadership experience underscores just how different and challenging things were in 2020.

Deren’s goal is to run camp next summer as normally as possible. That said, more lead time to prepare for summer 2021 doesn’t mean that another pivot won’t be necessary.

As next summer approaches he is tracking state mandates closely, continuing to consult with medical professionals, and being fully transparent with families. He is learning from 2020, and taking a hopeful but realistic approach for 2021. While every camp is different and will require its own procedures and guidelines, Deren’s approach is one you can take cues from as you too plan for next summer.