Summer camp directors prepare to welcome Alaska’s campers during the pandemic

Vicki Long-Leather is the director at the Trailside Discovery Camp, a popular outdoor summer program with sites in Anchorage and Palmer. The kids’ camps are adapting to the new social-distancing reality. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Trailside Discovery Camp director Vicki Long-Leather always has a lengthy list of supplies to order for her summer programs in Anchorage and Palmer. But, this year, there’s even more to buy, including more hand sanitizer, thermometers, disinfectant wipes, face masks and art supplies.

“Every camper is going to have to have their own individual Ziploc full of glue sticks and scissors and markers, crayons, paints,” Long-Leather said.

That’s because, at summer day camp during the coronavirus, there won’t be any sharing or high-fives or trading snacks or even sitting close together.

“We’re basically taking a few weeks to completely change something that we’ve been planning for the whole year,” Long-Leather said.

Right now, Long-Leather is among camp directors across Alaska who are redoing their summer programs to prepare to welcome campers during the pandemic. As businesses reopen and more people are called back to their workplaces, some parents are anxiously waiting to find out their camps’ plans.

“I do not have care if summer camps or schools don’t go,” said Erica Jensen, an Anchorage mom who depends on summer camp for her 9-year-old son Orion.

This winter, she registered Orion for Trailside programs for the entire summer. Then, came the coronavirus and classroom closures. Her child-care concerns began.

“It’s been on my mind since March when all this happened,” she said. “And I’ve been trying to take it one month at a time like, ‘Okay, I know I’m set through the end of May. Alright, what am I doing in June?’”

This week, Jensen got confirmation that Orion can attend Trailside starting in late May, just a few days after the end of the school year. It’s a huge relief, she said.

But that won’t be the case for everyone. Overall, there will be fewer camp spots for Alaska’s children this summer, in a state already strapped for child care.

Programs are wrestling with new state requirements and the money needed to implement them, said Thomas Azzarella, director of the Alaska Afterschool Network.

The state is requiring day camps to limit groups to no more than 10 campers. Staff must use cloth face coverings, and older children are encouraged to wear them too. Everyone also needs to go through daily health screenings. Field trips involving other groups are not allowed. There’s a list of other rules.

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Since early April, Camp Fire Alaska has offered emergency child-care programs to healthcare workers and first responders. Supplies are sorted into individual bags for each child to limit the spread germs. It plans to follow similar procedures at its summer camps. (Photo courtesy Camp Fire Alaska)

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Since early April, Camp Fire Alaska has offered emergency child-care programs to healthcare workers and first responders. Supplies are sorted into individual bags for each child to limit the spread germs. It plans to follow similar procedures at its summer camps. (Photo courtesy Camp Fire Alaska)

The state also continues to discuss when and how overnight camps can open, according to a spokesman with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

But already, some programs have called off their camps, like the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Camps at the Anchorage School District where students learn Chinese or Spanish were canceled. Others programs will reduce the number of children served. And some are moving from in-person camps to virtual ones, like the Girl Scouts of Alaska and the Anchorage Museum.

“This was a way that we could provide something consistent for the entire summer,” said Hollis Mickey, the museum’s chief learning and access officer.

Others, like Trailside, are adapting their in-person programs. Azzarella said his organization is helping camps navigate the new social-distancing reality.

“We recognize summer camps are a critical part of getting our state economy open,” he said. “So it’s something that we are really, again, assessing and determining what are those best practices to ensure programs can open and do so safely and effectively.”

Long-Leather said since Trailside is based outdoors, it’s easier to keep campers farther apart. The popular program usually serves about 250 children each day. This summer, Long-Leather hopes to maintain the capacity, but spread campers across more locations.

Also, to help develop new guidelines, Long-Leather formed a parent advisory group and hired a consultant. They created a 54-page coronavirus handbook that includes a six-step response plan if a camper or employee tests positive for the disease.

“This isn’t just camp opening up and trying to make it work,” Long-Leather said. “This is camp opening with consultant backing.”

Camp Fire Alaska, the state’s largest child care provider, plans to hold its day camps in Anchorage and Eagle River this summer, said chief program officer Melanie Hooper.

But it has called off its overnight camps for June and July, and will “continue to explore options for later in the summer,” Hooper said.

It has also canceled its in-person camps in rural Alaska, and won’t fly staff to remote communities because of concerns about spreading the virus. Instead, it will provide activity kits for children, families and elders, with an emphasis on delivering certain items including food, Hooper said.

Camp Fire isn’t new to caring for children during the coronavirus. Since early April, it has offered emergency child care to kids of health-care workers and first responders.

Hooper said camps opening this summer should prepare for everything to take more time, from pre-packaging snacks to keeping up with health guidelines.

“They can’t underestimate the amount of time and man hours it’s going to take to just stay on top of that health guidance and know that you’re going to be changing that sometimes weekly or daily,” she said.

Hooper said it’s important for parents to assess and manage the risk for their own family when deciding whether to send their children to camp this year, and know: “It’s not if there’s a COVID exposure at some point in the future for any camp or school or program, it’s when.” And camps are focused on mitigating that risk, she said.

At their child-care sites currently operating, Camp Fire has put tape on the floor so children know how far apart they should stay. They’ve removed stuffed animals, puppets, bean bag chairs and other items that are harder to clean. To play tag, children are using pool noodles instead of their hands, Hooper said.

“When I’m putting together our summer supply lists, we’re like, ‘Okay, well, certain board games don’t work well for physical distancing, and not sharing supplies,’ but the ones that have become very wildly popular are Battleship from afar, and Guess Who,” Hooper said.

As programs cancel and more Alaskans return to work, Dan Dillehay, who runs a smaller outdoors camp with his wife in Anchorage called Into the Woods, said he’s receiving more and more calls.

“Our phones have been ringing nonstop with parents asking about camps,” Dillehay said. “Parents are kind of scrambling to find care.”

Dillehay said they’re brainstorming socially-distant activities for the summer. They already do a lot of hiking, he said, so he plans to use a rope with knots tied at least six feet apart for campers to hold onto, to keep them spread out.

“We’ll encourage games like rather than tag where you touch another kid, you play some shadow tag, and tag their shadow,” he said.

But before there’s any playing, all children will have their temperatures checked.

Azzarella, from the Alaska Afterschool Network, encouraged families considering camp to send their children to the same program over several weeks instead of hopping between different sites to limit the spread of germs.