I hope — I pray — that this is the last blog post I ever have to write about Covid. If I HAVE to write another one because we have to deal with this again, I will. But I sincerely hope it’s the last one. And so it’s nice that the hoped-for last one is all about how we did it — we successfully ran our large population girls camp all summer, over 10 weeks, with absolutely NO COVID CASES!
We are so pleased and so proud and so grateful to have been and to have remained healthy after camp, too!
So how did we do it? This was a feat a year in the making.
I was so sad in 2020 when we couldn’t hold camp because even then I believed that with strategy and planning and adherence to protocol that we would have been successful. But too many factors arrayed against it and instead, that summer we held a modified version of our Family Camp temporarily called “Family Retreats.” This worked out wonderfully, too. But we sure did miss our mission, and our passion — running a traditional nature-based summer camp for girls.
We decided that we would do everything in our power to make 2021 both possible, and Covid-free. So we got down to business.
Pre-Camp Planning for Summer 2021
In our planning for summer 2021, we decided as an Administrative Team that in spite of any Covid protocols, we wanted our campers, many of whom come summer-after-summer, to have the most normal sleepaway summer camp experience possible. We wanted to aim for no masks, and no social distancing, while allowing for singing, hugging, eating together, and not feeling personally restricted or anxious.
As an outdoor educator, mom, and just as a human, I believe deeply that children need to see each others’ faces, connect with one another easily, and be free of so many intense messages about health and safety. It’s been my observation over the past year that kids’ mental health is suffering due to the scope of change and restrictions that Covid brought, especially given that those restrictions too often tried to reach even into fear of the outdoors, outdoor sports, and limiting kids’ access to natural recreation.
I believed then, and believe now, that a more balanced perspective and approach could help children and teens make it through the time of Covid feeling more, not less empowered even while observing reasonable precautionary measures.
And I believed we could do this at our camp due to a couple of assets in our favor. Namely that:
- We’re an overwhelmingly outdoor camp, including sleeping in open-air tents.
- Even our Dining Hall is screened all around, making meal times largely in an open-air setting.
- Our grounds are isolated, meaning we could easily limit exposure to the world “out there.”
- We have a strong community that was willing to work together so that camp could succeed for the campers.
Our core plan — and aim — was to create a Covid-free population “bubble” on our grounds.
We determined that rigorous pre-camp testing, and weekly testing during camp, would be the key to this approach. Three of our own camp doctors, a wider community of camp directors that I met with via Zoom on a weekly basis, and guidance by the American Camp Association, along with adherence to guidelines by local, state, and federal officials, set the stage for our planning and procedures.
We opted for several layers of testing:
- A pre-camp test and self-quarantining approximately four days prior to arriving at camp for all campers, staff, and any visitors.
- Two tests on Opening Day — a rapid test and a polymerase chain reaction test (PCR).
- A final PCR test four days after Opening Day for all camp residents at our three-week Term Camp sessions.
Once ALL those test results came back negative, the plan was to move out of temporary pods (see below) and into “regular” Term Camp.
Turns out that personal access to Covid testing isn’t as easy to achieve as was hoped.
We created a secure, corporate account with Abbott for our rapid tests, which was fairly simple. I was able to order all the rapid tests we needed and wanted.
Then I worked to create an account with our regional LabCorp organization to make Camp Alleghany its own testing site. As mundane as this sounds, it was no small feat. I’ll spare all the boring details, but surprisingly this all took up massive amounts of time, brain power, energy, and emotion each and every week of testing (one of the very few people who experienced my tears all summer was our kind LabCorp rep Ryan, who talked me through a frustrating challenge with one of our many LabCorp spreadsheets).
Of course, I was willing to do anything to keep our campers and staff safe, but it’s not my ideal way of spending my time as a director — it’s camp itself that I want to be most tuned to. But you do what you have to do in unique times.
I also had to work with a separate local medical clinic to secure free PCR tests for those few campers and staff members without insurance, as the main LabCorp account would be charging us more than our budget allowed for the uninsured.
Once all this prep was in place, the real preparation began!
Dr. Anne Cather and Dr. Lauren Miller were truly instrumental in this, staying up well past midnight on the nights before some of our bigger testing days to prepare the tests and labels, and get everything organized. It was neither quick nor easy. Additionally, each week our Medical Staff diligently set up ongoing testing for our Staff. And did the same during the first week of each Term for that second round of testing four days into the Term for all of our campers.
The level of testing was intense! But so worth it…
SO – before we had all our test results in, what did camp look like?
A Group of Campers is Called a Pod
If there’s usually a gaggle of girls or a school of fish or a murder of crows…well during Summer 2021 for the first week we had a “pod of campers.” This was where the campers were kept in their age-group Units (as a “pod”) for meals and all activities rather than mixing and interacting with the rest of camp until those four-days-in tests came back negative.
All of camp had all of our meals outside in their pods. For this particular summer we rented two event tents that were set up on some of our field space and we served our meals from under one of those tents and let the campers spread out outside. This wasn’t without one unfortunate consequence that I hope will not last beyond this past summer. It was how it affected Lunch Under the Apple Tree (LUTAT), as our weekly outdoor picnic is lovingly called.
LUTAT has always been a camp favorite and a novelty that’s much looked-forward-to in a typical camp week of Dining Hall meals. But after a week of meals outside I think the campers and counselors were SO over outdoor meals! 🙂 But I bet LUTAT will return to their hearts next summer, during our historic 100th summer!
During this first Pod Week the campers traveled to Activities with their Pods, too, something we don’t normally do at Alleghany. Campers were able to sample every single Activity in the first five days of camp. This actually proved to be such a success that we’re talking about keeping that in the schedule, only perhaps for just the first two days, as a way to let the campers explore all their options and get to know the counselors. So many campers said they took Activities they never thought they’d try!
To capitalize on the benefits and safety of fresh air, campers slept with the tent flaps open at night. Normally the campers put at least the back flaps down, and sometimes all of the flaps down at night. But for this summer we wanted to insure air flow during those long stretches of time when up to four campers and a counselor are essentially breathing in close proximity to each other. So we kept the front and back flaps up, and during the day, the side flaps also went up in order to completely air out every tent fully every day.
During Pod Week we did use masks indoors when necessary, especially when age groups were mixed indoors (which was actually rare that first week!) . For example, during First Term we had a rainy spell during that first week and had to split the campers between the Play Hall and Dining Hall for meals. Campers were very spread out, but we used masks for moving in and out of the spaces, and when they needed to go up to the buffet table to get more food.
Our brand new Camp Store is now an indoor space, instead of a walk-up window, so we limited the number of masked shoppers to 12 at a time during the first week.
Overall, we were cautious and careful during Pod Week, while still allowing the campers lots of free and easy camp time to see faces and interact normally. After all, we were outdoors 99% of the time!
Once that final set of test results came back negative for all, we relaxed into normal camp mode — and it was amazing!
Home Sweet Camp…At Last!
After we got the all-clear, the next two weeks of Term Camp were as carefree as usual in terms of being physically near one another, singing, laughing, hugging, all that good stuff! In short, camp absolutely felt like real camp, like a regular summer. We were all just doing our regular thing and soon forgot about that first week of testing and having to eat outside all day and staying in Pods.
Campers chose their four core Activities as usual, and dove right in to a regular ‘Ghany schedule. We had successful Dance and Drama Shows at the end of each Term, as well as many other fun, normal interactive Evening Activities, campfires, color games, traditions, and more.
Our team of very well-trained Counselors understood the stakes and were trusted to be totally Covid-careful on their time off if and when they left camp.
Initially when we formulated our plan, the vaccine had not rolled out yet and Covid numbers were still high, so at that time we considered requiring all staff Time Off to take place in camp. Then we moved to the idea of “contactless” Time Off, where staff could leave camp but couldn’t go indoors anywhere or interact with people outside of camp (e.g. outdoor hikes, curbside pickup, etc).
As summer approached and the vaccine became a widely available thing, and transmission rates and Covid numbers plummeted in many areas, we decided regular time off would be fine as long as counselors agreed to mask indoors at all times regardless of vaccination status. Unvaccinated individuals were asked to only eat outdoors at restaurants, not indoors.
We trusted our ace staff and put our confidence in them, and they came through! They were very careful both on Time Off and when leaving camp for some personal reason (e.g. a grandparent’s funeral). Still, to stay on top of any eventuality, we continued to test the staff upon return, as well as weekly.
Just as with our campers, we never had a single Covid case among counselors — or anyone!
We also religiously tested any visitors, such as our American Camp Association (ACA) visitors for our accreditation visit, and day-workers such as our Nit Fairies who come on Opening Days.
The common cold did sweep through camp, and it seems like everyone got it. But our Medical Staff monitored this decisively. The two times a fever presented itself we quickly tested the individual to determine if we needed to go into full on Covid Action Plan mode. Thankfully it was run-of-the-mill sickness as can happen any summer at camp.
What About Shorter Programs?
Mini Campers took all the pre-camp tests but not the one four days after their Opening Day, since they only stay a week. They stayed in their Pods the whole week, and ate outdoors for the first 48 hours until all the PCR tests came back negative. After that, they wore masks and spread out while moving around the open-air Dining Hall.
Participants at Mother-Daughter Weekend tested prior to arrival and then had the Opening Day rapid test. They stayed in Pods for the weekend, and, since it’s such a smaller group, simply also wore masks and spread out in the open-air Dining Hall.
Family Campers tested prior to arrival and then had the Opening Day rapid test. They were allowed to choose to distance or not with other Family Campers. We kept most of our Activities during Family Camp outside.
For all sessions, we asked participants and staff to please be very Covid-careful for the 10 days leading up to camp. Vaccinated individuals were asked to simply use common sense and avoid super crowded areas or unnecessary events. Unvaccinated campers and staff were asked to quarantine for the 10 days prior to avoid any exposure as much as possible.
Sadly we had one camper whose pre-camp test came back positive and unfortunately she wasn’t able to come to camp — and she was missed! But it did show our that our plan worked, and it, along with our other protocols and procedures ensured a Covid-free summer for all who came to ‘Ghany! Of this we are deeply proud, grateful, and thrilled!
Our Historic 100th Summer in 2022
While we very much hope that we don’t have to do this all over again next summer, or in the future, we’re totally willing to if it means we can continue to have camp, and have normal camp!
Camp was so needed for the campers and counselors (and myself and everyone else) this year. The tragic and terrible stories our counselors shared of being isolated in their dorm rooms at college all alone for the entire year would break your heart! Campers who were overloaded on Zoom sessions, screens, and social isolation clearly wanted nothing more than to move, laugh, run, play, do, be, and find themselves and camp friends anew.
We’re prepared to do what we have to do again this coming summer if needed. We’ll follow the data and continue to stay on top of the latest research regarding this virus, the risks, and the spread, and we’ll do what we have to do hold camp again — for our 100th anniversary!
That said, we’ll also pray fervently every day for the end of this scourge, for the end of suffering for everyone no matter how the virus has touched their lives, and for our society to be whole and united again.
We hope that you’ll be there for our 1ooth summer! We can’t wait to see you aain!
— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls
*If you want to learn more about the merits of sleepaway summer camp, download my FREE e-book, 3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Experience Early. It’s a great resource to share with friends, or if you are a first-time camp family and you wonder what sleepaway camp would be like for your child. Come join us!