Summer camps cancel, go online amid COVID-19

Camp Arrowhead campers play on the water during one of the previous summers. Camp Arrowhead in Lewes was among several camps that announced canceled summer programming this year in response to COVID-19. (Submitted photo)

LEWES — For 54 years, Camp Arrowhead’s executive director, Walt Lafontaine, has either been a camper or has worked at a camp.

This year will be an exception.

Camp Arrowhead, which has functioned in some fashion since the 1930s at its site in Lewes, told campers in a video message in early May that they would cancel programming for the summer due to coronavirus.

“It was really tough,” Mr. Lafontaine said in a Zoom interview, adding later, “The middle of March came, we were like, ‘OK, well, are we willing to really sacrifice the safety of our kids? And are we really able to operate and not compromise their safety or jeopardize what we offer?’”

This year, as COVID-19 has shifted the landscape, many camps are seeing annual plans upended, with some canceling for the summer, others adapting to a virtual platform and several holding out to offer modified programming.

The state entered Phase 1 of its recovery plan June 1, which loosened restrictions for retail businesses, restaurants, hotels and more. Summer camps — along with summer school — are slated for Phase 2 of the reopening plan, which Gov. John Carney announced is scheduled for Monday.

Summer camps will be able to open under Phase Two of Delaware’s recovery plan, but with strict social distancing guidelines in place. For some camps, like Camp Arrowhead where these campers learned to sail during a past summer, programming was canceled. (Submitted photo)

Guidelines for operating with coronavirus include strict social distancing, a limited number of campers and a thorough cleaning regimen. For Camp Arrowhead, though, following the guidelines and upholding what campers expect out of their weeklong experience seemed at odds.

Mr. Lafontaine explained that Camp Arrowhead, which serves children in grades 2 through 11, is a decentralized camp, where campers are paired with one counselor throughout the duration, meaning the camp typically has more staff than others. With up to 260 children attending a session at a time, it would be very challenging to enforce social distancing if his facility was fully occupied.

“We can’t just say ‘Well, we’re going to keep the campers 6 feet apart, and we’re going to do this and that,’” he said. “The reality is, they’re kids. … If you work with kids as long as we have, you know their hands are everywhere; they’re touching everything; you tell them not to share towels, they’re going to share towels. Unless you’ve got one adult per kid, leaning over their back, it’s just not going to happen.”

This summer-long closure is a disappointing loss for kids who attend camp, but also for Mr. Lafontaine’s business. Camp Arrowhead had 1,300 kids registered for camp before COVID-19 escalated in the spring. Without families paying to send their children to camp this summer, Mr. Lafontaine said Camp Arrowhead could lose about 85% of the revenue it generates each season.

“We’re probably going to lose about $300,000 in deficit,” Mr. Lafontaine said. “And yes, I think eventually we’ll be able to make that up. It’s going to be slow.”

Mr. Lafontaine said he is grateful to the many families who have donated to Camp Arrowhead to help make up for its financial losses this summer.

Camp Arrowhead also could not offer employment to the 95 camp counselors it normally hires, many of which are returning staff who attended the camp in their youth. The closure will force those employees to find new jobs and will cost them a summer at Camp Arrowhead that they normally look forward to all winter.

Matthew Peipher’s summers have included Camp Arrowhead for nearly a decade. He participated in three different programs — from sailing to archery to learning about the bay. In 2020, he was in the pipeline for working as an Arrowhead counselor over the summer, but as a collegiate athlete at Gettysburg College, that goal was put on hold for a bit.

“This summer, with pretty much everything sports-wise being canceled pretty early on, it opened up an opportunity for me to potentially work at camp, so I kind of jumped on it and was looking forward to working my first summer there,” said Matthew, 19, who is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Obviously, it went a different direction.”

Aside from anticipating working there for the summer, camp is special for Matthew — and his family. His parents met at the camp when they were counselors.

“You make such great relationships and friendships with the people that you work with on the staff and those relationships last a lifetime,” said Susan Peipher, Matthew’s mother. “When the pandemic started, we had a camp friend who set up a Zoom call, and we had a bunch of staff alumni on there, some that I hadn’t seen or talked to in 30 years, but the bonds are so tremendous and tight that it’s almost like you just saw them yesterday, so that’s really compelling.”

Seeing those strong connections solidified how special camp was to her son.

“Going to Camp Arrowhead was a chance for me to make a lot of new friends,” he said. “For me, it was always a chance to go and just start over, almost, with everyone. Get to know people that you didn’t know coming into it, and then by the end of the week, you were best friends. So, it was always really, really fun to do every summer.”

After having been a camper, then a counselor and then waterfront director, Mrs. Peipher said that one of the greatest gifts parents can give children is that experience of being away from home at camp.

From learning more about oneself and abilities, to building up confidence, to learning to work with others, Mrs. Peipher noted that the experience is valuable for self-exploration and development.

“I think it’s really a unique situation that we don’t otherwise provide to kids. It’s certainly not replicated in sports teams, it’s not replicated in schools,” she said. “Because you are living and working within your small unit, you learn about each other, you learn to respect each other and support each other and talk about big things, whatever comes into your mind at that moment, so that’s really beneficial.”

Aside from Matthew, her two younger children, Ryan, 15, and Emily, 14, were set to attend camp this year, but those plans are likewise dashed. Mrs. Peipher said it was the right decision, however, to cancel for the year.

“I think if you had to implement the measures of wearing masks and social distancing, that would really devalue the experience at camp,” she said. “When you go to camp, you like to get close to the people that you’re with. It’s not uncommon to give each other a hug or, you know, to hold hands walking down a trail. That can’t happen if you have to social distance.”

Online ‘camps’

While some camp settings are nearly impossible to execute under proper health guidelines, the Milton Theatre has adapted by temporarily launching its Resilience Arts Online Academy, a series of online “camps” for children of varying ages. The first program it launched was the Broadway Cabaret for middle and high schoolers, which lasted a week.

In these programs, children met online with a teacher for an hour a day to practice for a final musical production at the end of the week, much like a normal summer program — except the final performance took the form of video.

The students were given songs to learn and, using one device to listen to the music and another to record themselves singing, the performances were strung together virtually, said Resilience Arts student Kate Sumstine, 15, of Milton.

“It’s really cool,” she noted.

Kate is no stranger to Milton Theatre’s summer camps — she’s been attending them for half her life, even taking on more of an internship role and helping out behind the scenes as she’s gotten older.

While the online courses are a nice alternative, she said it’s been hard to be separate from her peers.

“We’re a very close group, like we see each other every week for multiple hours, and it’s really hard just not being able to see each other and hug each other,” she said.

John Paul Lacap, the marketing director for the Milton Theatre, said the theater generates revenue through ticket sales and summer camp costs. The facility was exceeding ticket sales for weeks in the winter and early spring season — then COVID-19 changed everything.

“In January and February, we were breaking the sales records,” Mr. Lacap said. “And that’s really the weird part of it, because there was no downturn for us. Like, literally the week before we were shut down, all our shows were sold-out. And then the next week, zero, absolutely zero ticket sales.”

He noted that the theater differs from others, with almost 100% of operation costs coming from ticket sales.

“It’s like a double-edged sword. It was a reason why we’re very successful, but also one of the reasons why we’re really struggling right now, because right now, there’s absolutely nothing happening so we don’t have any other source of revenue,” he said.

Mr. Lacap explained the financial reality of this lost revenue for the theater.

“Much like other businesses, we are definitely hurting. It’s been very challenging, the past few months,” Mr. Lacap said. “We have lost about $200,000 in revenue. And before the pandemic, we had 14 employees. We’re now down to two part-time (employees).”

The Resilience Arts Online Academy program helped make up for the lost revenue of summer programs somewhat, but online programs cannot be priced the same way as in-person programs. Resilience Arts programs were priced at $49 per week, while in-person summer camps are $320 — mostly attributed to the online program taking up an hour a day, while in-person camps meet for up to eight hours daily.

After weeks of despairing over the state-mandated closure, the announcement that summer camps may open under Phase 2 came as a relief to the Milton Theatre. It originally hesitated to cancel its midsummer programs, such as its July production of “Annie,” awaiting the possibility of reopening. However, Mr. Lacap indicated that the theater would resume its summer programs under strict guidelines from the state.

The theater must submit a plan to the state for approval, Mr. Lacap said, and place the online classes on hold.

Typically, the camps would see 30 to 40 kids, he said. This year, camps will be split into cast A and cast B, with no more than 15 campers in one group, with a director assigned to each.

For Kate, who in early June wasn’t sure what the future would hold for camp, any offering wouldn’t be taken for granted.

“I feel like I just showed up at rehearsal, I was like, ‘You know, whatever, I’m here,’” she said. “But now, I feel like it’s just different and I feel like once everything gets back to normal and we all get to see each other again, I feel like our new normal is going to be different.”

Camp Barnes, a free camp in Frankford open to children between ages 10 and 13, usually welcomes 600 kids throughout the summer to participate in swimming, kayaking, archery, crabbing and fishing, nature walks, athletics, ropes courses and cooking. Out of safety for all involved — from staff to campers — the Delaware State Police-run camp was canceled at the end of April, said DSP Cpl. Shawn Hatfield, director of the program.

“A lot of the kids who do attend the camp can’t afford to go on trips or vacations, like a lot of families do,” he said. “This is their vacation, and their one week of having a week about themselves. And unfortunately, there was just no possible way we could do it in a safe manner.”

Typically, the camp is staffed by 16 to 18 counselors, two cooks, a nurse and two state troopers, he said.

The camp receives funding from three main fundraisers — a stock car race, a golf tournament and a youth wrestling tournament, all three of which are slated for this fall and early winter. The camp typically receives donations from the public, and a grant from the state each year.

As the fundraisers are still pretty far out in the future, Cpl. Hatfield doesn’t foresee difficulties with holding the events, “but, as you’ve seen over the last couple months, things can change within a week,” he added.

When it came to holding camp virtually, Cpl. Hatfield said adaptation wasn’t really part of the discussion.

“It really wasn’t an option for the way we run our camp. … We wanted to run a camp as well as we have for the last 70 years,” he said. “For what’s going on in the world right now, there was no way we could do that.

“It’s a fun time, and it’s honestly going to be greatly missed, but we did what was best for everyone involved for this year,” he added.

Although some camps will not open at all this summer, and most will not be the same, children getting to attend camps in any capacity is a win for Delaware families.

“There’s just a lot of great bonding (at camp). You grow spiritually, you grow emotionally,” Mrs. Peipher said. “It’s something I always recommend to my friends now with kids, that they consider sending their kids to camp. I just think there’s so many benefits.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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