Coronavirus Cloud Overhangs Summer Camp Openings

The lake is a popular hang at Camp Westmont in Wayne County. Westmont expects to be ready to go come opening day on June 27.
The lake is a popular hang at Camp Westmont in Wayne County. Westmont expects to be ready to go come opening day on June 27. (Courtesy of Camp Westmont)

Over the next several weeks, it seems, we’ll continue to go without — without the human touch and without the physical presence of friends and extended family around the seder table. Life will be incomplete, and we’ll get through it because there is precedence for it.

But even a habitually resilient people can only take so much. Forty years wandering the desert? OK. Opening Day’s canceled? We’ll persevere.

But no sleepaway camp? Check, please.

In a normal year, the start of camp spells emancipation for kids and parents alike. But the potential start of camp this year would bring with it emancipation of major proportions.

Turns out stay-at-home directives are good for only one thing: containing viruses. Parents, suddenly stay-at-home jacks of all trades, are reeling from the burden of blurred boundaries. Meanwhile, the kids are cooped up, missing out on every non-screen-related thing.

Gary Glaser’s the director of Camp Nock-A-Mixon in Kintnersville, and he can’t recall a year when the need for camp’s been so dire.

“The parents need camp, sure, but the kids more so,” he said. “If the parents are abiding by the quarantining, that means the most meaningful interaction that (the kids) have had with someone who’s not a sibling is Facetime.”

Glaser’s phone’s been ringing steadily — parents calling, putting their kids, Nock-A-Mixon campers, on speakerphone.

“They say, ‘Promise me there’s going to be camp.’ All I can do is promise that if the law allows it — if common sense safety and our doctors allow it —  there will be camp,” Glaser said.

“But I’m not going to bring everybody to camp to get everybody sick.”

The big challenge with the coronavirus is the seeming infinitude of unknowables. Camp directors like schedules, they like order. Start dates, end dates, neatly apportioned blocks of time. Instinct suggests Glaser knows right now, more than 12 weeks before camp is scheduled to begin, when color war will break, when A-game basketball will be and when the oldest senior boys will commence building the ancient teepees and burning the sacred ropes. These are certainties.

Except, this year, they’re not, given the uncertainties. Glaser’s willing to negotiate with these uncertainties, but he won’t forfeit to them.

“We have a 97% return rate from year to year,” Glazer said. “So if you’re 14-15 years old, you’ve been coming a long time. Those kids — they’re part of your family. You’ve watched them grow up. So even if it’s a four-, five-, six-week summer, we want to get a rope burn in … we want the kids to have all that.”

Nock-A-Mixon is prepared to be malleable. Camp, Glaser admitted, might have to look a little bit different this year, but he doesn’t anticipate any safety retrofitting to be burdensome.

“Maybe it’s a summer without out-of-camp trips,” Glaser said. “Truthfully, if you told me I had to run camp but we had to stay in camp the whole time … that’s just five more days (in camp) that I have to plan — give me two hours.”

Scott Freemer, associate director at Camp Westmont in Wayne County is similarly amenable to adjusting on the fly. In fact, he’s excited about the possibility of keeping all activities on-campus.

“The best parts of Westmont are our traditions, the things that happen at Westmont,” Freemer said. “That’s the best part of camp, so adding some new traditions like more nighttime leagues or a new singing competition might just make us better.”

He’s similarly bullish on there being camp.

“Here’s what we’re saying to our families: ‘We are having camp,’” said Freemer who’s entering his 15th year working at Westmont, where opening day is scheduled for June 27, same as Nock-A-Mixon’s. “Of course, if the government tells us we can’t open camp, that’s a different story, but for the most part we want our kids to have something to look forward to. Being at home, not talking to friends, social distancing is obviously the complete opposite of camp.”

Unlike Nock-A-Mixon, Westmont hasn’t yet given much thought to a truncated summer.

“Has it crossed our minds? Of course,” Freemer said. “But no one’s gone seriously down that road yet because we’re still (close to) three months out.”

Both Freemer and Glaser are simpatico on one interesting point: their belief that camp may actually be the safest place for kids this summer.

Camps, as both Freemer and Glaser tell it, are effectively disconnected, self-contained oases, occupied mostly by preteens and early adolescents being looked after by college kids, who are, in turn, overseen by a handful of thirty-somethings and middle-aged administrators, who themselves, are invariably, in better shape than anyone else at camp.

“If you could zap everybody to camp without COVID-19, it’d be the best quarantine in the world,” Glaser said.

“We have eight RNs, a nurse practitioner, and either an ER doctor or a pediatrician on site at all times,” Freeman said. “And how often do you have a doctor that’s basically at your house?”

If Glaser and Freemer can be considered hawkish on camp this summer, Rabbi Joel Seltzer, the executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos is more dovish.

“We continue to hold out hope that after a period of social distancing, and perhaps with the advancement of medical interventions, we will be able to operate our camps this summer,” Seltzer said.

Unlike Nock-A-Mixon and Westmont, where the stated goal is to exhaust all options before having camp-less summer, Ramah has enumerated the contingencies that will take effect should that come to pass.

“Our Board of Directors has recently decided that, in the unprecedented event that Camp Ramah in the Poconos or Ramah Day Camp cannot open this summer, we will be offering full refunds of both tuition and fees,” said Seltzer,  “as well as options for families to donate or to ‘roll over’ their tuition to next summer.”; 215-832-0737

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