Summer camps prepare for an uncertain season

Campers at Capital Camps before the pandemic (Photo courtesy of Lisa Handelman)

By Eric Schucht and Jesse Berman

Last summer left many would-be campers stuck at home as COVID regulations caused overnight camps to close. As camp directors look toward the summer season, they face the good news of available vaccines and the bad news of a quickly spreading pandemic.

As enrollment gets underway, camps are preparing multiple contingencies for an uncertain future. We checked in with some of the Washington region’s favorite sleepaway camps on their current plans.

Capital Camps

While Capital Camps was closed last summer, this year the non-affiliated Jewish camp in Waynesboro, Pa., plans to open for campers.

“We’re planning to open and confident we’re opening in a way that’s safe for kids both to keep them safe physically, socially and emotionally after coming off of the trauma of COVID,” said Camp Director Lisa Handelman.

The plan for this summer includes mask wearing, social distancing and increased hand washing and facility cleaning. There will be additional medical staff. Handelman said she is considering implementing “three-tier testing,” requiring campers to be tested for COVID before camp arrival, upon arrival and then five days later.

Capital Camps has about 800 campers per season, Handelman said. For 2021, the camp plans to limit the number by as much as 100, so one bed will remain unoccupied in each cabin.

Camp Ramah in New England

Assistant Director Michelle Sugarman said the goal this summer for Camp Ramah in New England is to create a “bubble” for campers.

The current plan is to have incoming campers placed into small groups called “pods.” These groups could then be brought together into larger cohorts after a week or so and with additional testing.

At the moment there is no plan to limit the number of campers, but there will be restrictions on people coming in and out of camp. Visitors will be barred from entering camp during sessions and staff won’t be allowed to spend their free time off property. Masks will be required at all times and the majority of indoor programming will be moved outdoors.

“Obviously we have to figure out what to do on rainy days,” Sugarman said.

The camp, in Palmer, Mass., sends out monthly updates to families regarding the upcoming season. But Sugarman said the situation is in flux.

“There’s only so much information we know and things change daily,” Sugarman said, adding that she is “optimistic that camp can open and we can have a successful and safe, fun summer.”

About 900 campers usually attend the Conservative movement camp each summer. Last summer the facilities were closed and counselors led activities over Zoom instead. Sugarman said she is confident camp will return to in-person programming in 2021.

Camps Airy and Louise

While Camps Airy and Louise are “projecting we’ll be open for the summer of 2021,” according to Jonathan Gerstl, the camps’ executive director, many of the details have yet to be finalized.

Last summer the two independent Jewish camps based in Thurmont and Cascade, Md., offered online programs, including 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 said. “For not being in the online business, we did a really good job of engaging our community.”

This summer, Gerstl expects there will be some mask wearing in certain places, some social distancing in the dining hall, and that there may be an emphasis on activities outdoors, where air circulates more freely. The plans will become more detailed and specific with the approach of spring, and with more knowledge of how the COVID-19 vaccine, faster testing and new guidelines from the state will alter the situation.

Habonim Dror Camp Moshava

In the village of Street, Md., Habonim Dror Camp Moshava implemented a virtual camp experience last summer. For 2021, Talia Rodwin, assistant director of the camp based on the ideals of progressive Labor Zionism, hopes things will look more like normal.

COVID-19 protocols, including mask wearing and dividing campers into separate cohorts of 10 to 12 children, will be put in place to keep people safe, she said.

“People need to know that it will still feel like camp,” Rodwin said. “There can be this sense of sadness, of, ‘Oh, we can’t do all of our traditions in the exact same way that we did them before.’ But camp is a very creative space. Camp is generative of new ideas, and we can take things that were traditions and shift them on their head, and that becomes a new tradition.”

Camp Havaya

Located in South Sterling, Pa., the Reconstructionist-affiliated Camp Havaya also made the shift into the virtual space during 2020, according to Director Sheira Director-Nowack. Last summer, Havaya gave campers two weeks of free, hop on-hop off online camp.

Director-Nowack said she is “about 99 percent” that the camp will be open this summer. What camp looks like will depend on the state of the pandemic between now and then. She said she is working under the assumption of “no one having a vaccine,” and that the camp will use pods, sanitized cleanings and face masks.

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Jesse Berman is staff writer at Baltimore Jewish Times. Eric Schucht is Washington Jewish Week staff writer.

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