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Summer camps struggled during the pandemic. Here’s how one made it through.

A camp director on how he navigated the safety challenges of Covid-19.

A camp counselor stands in a field in front of children in yellow shirts, as one raises their hand.
Camp got complicated last year, but kids can still be safe and spend time outdoors.
Getty Images

Winding Trails Summer Day Camp welcomes 600 kids to the forests of central Connecticut every year. They bounce through afternoon activities — zip-lining through the trees, swimming in the lake, biking through the countryside — before heading back home to their parents who savored the break from child rearing duties. 2020, of course, was different. Unlike some summer camps, Winding Trails remained open during the pandemic, and counselors cared for their campers behind a mask, in small groups, with bottles of disinfectant in tow.

Keith Garbart, camp director at Winding Trails, says he agonized over the decision to reopen last year. Like many of us, he spent the early period of the pandemic assuming that life would go back to normal within a matter of weeks, before slowly realizing that it was impossible for any public institution to function normally during a pandemic. Today, he finds himself drafting the safety protocols for the fast-approaching summer of 2021, which hopefully will accompany the fruits of a mass vaccination campaign (though kids likely will not be inoculated this summer).

Winding Trails was open for business in 2020, and Garbart says the camp intends to keep most of the health measures they implemented last year. After all, if there’s one thing America has learned, it’s that nobody should underestimate Covid-19. We talked about that, as well as what it’s like to herd kids from behind a mask, and the economic fallout that the shelter-in-place mandates wreaked upon summer camps all over the country.

Take me back to a year ago. When did you realize the pandemic would be disrupting the camp?

Last March, we thought that camp was going to run and that we’d just not come into work for a few weeks. But reality started to hit around April. We didn’t know if the state was going to let us operate, and if they were, how would we pull it off? Should we even be having camp? We started to have some serious discussions. We’re a nonprofit, so we told our board what we thought we could do to keep everyone safe, but we were kinda flying blind, because we didn’t have a ton of guidance.

Did you already have kids signed up for the 2020 season?

Yeah. We’re a little unique as far as camps go, because we start that process for returning campers back in October. We’re very popular, and our sessions fill up, so we were fully booked in January. We have about 625 campers each day. We started to get calls in March about the pandemic, so we started a phased communication plan. If people chose not to come to camp, we could push it to the 2021 summer or give them a refund outright. So we had to give money back to a ton of people who just didn’t feel comfortable.

Did you have a moment last spring where you were like, “I don’t think this is going to work, and we’ll have to cancel the camp season”?

Outwardly, I projected confidence that we could do it. But internally, I struggled sometimes. Once we had our protocols and procedures in place, I felt that kids needed camp more than anything last summer. If we could make it happen safely, then we needed to put it on.

What were those protocols?

We cut our group sizes. Typically, we’d have anywhere from 12 to 15 campers, and we dropped those numbers down. That was the first step. In the past, we’d have kids cycle through different activities, and have two or three groups go to the same activity at the same time. But we kept all of them separate, so there wasn’t any commingling. We used to have 10 buses that went around the greater Hartford area, and we cut that off. So, it was drop-off only, and we had to come up with waves of drop-offs because we couldn’t have everyone showing up at the same time.

We had health screenings and temperature checks. If a camper had a temperature over 100.4, they weren’t allowed to come to camp that day. We built a hand-washing trough. We had enhanced cleaning in between activities. All of our counselors were masked, but the kids didn’t have to be. It was a lot of outside-the-box thinking, and honestly, I think we had one of our healthiest camps ever last year.

What was the vibe among the kids? Did they seem different, or more on edge than usual? Or was this like any other summer to them?

No, I didn’t feel like there was a negative vibe at all. I think kids were aware of it. This was one of the first times during the pandemic that kids were around other kids. The vibe around camp was amazing. We were all embracing it and making it happen.

Did that carry over to the counselors? Were they happy to get out of the house?

Absolutely. Some of our staff didn’t feel comfortable coming in, even with the protocols, because they’re living with older parents. But the ones that did turn up bought into what we were doing. A lot of these counselors are in high school or college, and they’ve been at home and isolated since the previous December in some cases. I think it was great socialization for them.

Did you have any Covid-19 scares along the way?

It pretty much went off without a hitch. We did have a few potential cases. Our last week we had a positive test from one camper, but nobody in their household tested positive either, so that might’ve been a false positive, who knows. But there was definitely a moment of trepidation after getting that phone call on a Sunday. But we never had a quarantine group or anything like that.

You’re a nonprofit so this probably isn’t as much of a concern, but did you guys take a hit financially last summer from the refunds? Have you noticed a significant decrease in the number of campers?

We were fortunate to have enough people come back, and without doing the busing, we were able to save some money [last year]. We certainly had to look at our budget, and we didn’t bring in the revenue that we typically do, but it wasn’t a huge detriment. We’re definitely opening this summer, and the state has increased the group sizes this time around. But we’re keeping all of our protocols. There’s no reason not to. Our summer will pretty much look like last summer, albeit with a little bit more freedom with the larger group sizes. Some camps certainly did struggle, but we were fortunate to survive.