Summer camps reinventing themselves in response to coronavirus pandemic

Summer camps reinventing themselves in response to coronavirus pandemic

Many moving to virtual sessions

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During a previous year at Calleva, campers enjoy the outdoors

Photo from Calleva

As spring leads into summer, parents and kids, in a normal year, would be getting ready for camps. But the coronavirus pandemic is preempting a lot of those plans and forcing some camp owners to get creative.

Camps in Montgomery County that can operate exclusively outdoors, with no more than 10 campers, got the green light under the phase 1 reopening June 1. But, with many camps already well into the planning stage and most with larger groups, the phased reopening isn’t changing their summer plans.

For Tony Korson, CEO and founder of KOA sports camp in North Bethesda, the phase 1 announcement sent him scrambling to take advantage of offering in-person camps.

Since the announcement, he bought 50 $50 temporary single-person tents and rented a high-end portable bathroom trailer, which he will use to run in-person camps from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day Upper School campus in Rockville. Campers will bring their own chair and will undergo a temperature and health screening daily.

Starting June 15, four groups, each with eight campers and one counselor, will play games. Those will include modified street hockey, in which the defense and offense can’t cross set lines; T-ball golf; and other games and activities.

The camp costs $349 for a full day, the same rates as campers paid pre-pandemic. The June 15 week of camp so far is half full. The June 22 week is nearly sold out.

Korson said he might add a fifth camp group for July based on demand.

In addition, KOA developed a traveling camp relying on “host families” for a backyard, with family friends as fellow campers.

KOA dispatches two counselors to the host family location with all of the gear they would normally use at the sports camp. Campers and counselors must fill out a daily health check form. Counselors must wear masks.

Using Zoom, Korson said, he can have sites compete against each other to give it a bigger camp feel.

The “dispatch camp” is sold out, with 14 sites scheduled each week in June.

“We have two choices. We can get in the fetal position and cry and probably go out of business or we can be innovative and fight and battle,” Korson said.

KOA operates a 13,000-square-foot indoor sports training facility that’s been shut since March. He has 14 full-time employees and nearly 300 seasonally.

Summer camps account for 20 percent of his revenue. Between the dispatch camp and the modified in-person camp, Korson predicts he might bring in about 50 percent of the revenue he would make in an average summer.

“It’s not going to get me all the way back, but it hopefully will gain some new customers who will come to us in the long term,” he said.

Camps at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney and the Bullis School in Potomac have all canceled in-person programming. Lauren Costello, director of auxiliary programs for Good Counsel, declined to go into details about the camp program. The Bullis School could not be reached for comment.

Soon, Calleva campers would ordinarily be paddling, hiking and fishing Maryland’s and Virginia’s local and state parks. Calleva canceled its first three weeks of the summer camp season, which would have started June 8. 

“We are holding out hope that camp will happen in some form this summer. We are used to being adaptable,” said Julie Clendenin, director of Calleva’s summer camp programs.

The camp employs about 25 people year-round, offering after-school and days-off programming. It ramps up to about 200 staff members in the summer.

During peak summer weeks, Calleva has 450 campers. Summer camp makes up more than half of the nonprofit’s revenue, Clendenin said.

Because the camp uses state and local parks, Calleva has to untangle all of the different stay-at-home and reopening staging plans.

Calleva officials were scheduled to meet on Friday with the Maryland Department of Health to try to get answers to a lot of outstanding questions, including a provision in Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order that no out-of-state campers are allowed. Calleva draws not only from Maryland, but D.C., Virginia and other neighboring states.

“We are waiting on that local guidance from the county executive and the D.C. mayor. We are preparing to have camp as soon as we are given the state and local thumbs up,” she said.

Calleva has stopped accepting registrations while it figures out what offerings might be possible this summer with the restrictions and what adaptations it can make to comply with those restrictions.

“Camp will be very different this year,” Clendenin said, adding that the organizations has been busy with inquiries from campers wanted to enroll.

Instead of canceling programming, some area camps are relying on virtual programing to maintain a presence.

Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo is venturing onto Zoom to engage its campers. The transition already started with the spring programming for all of its kindergarten through 12th-grade classes that include acting, tap, ballet and more.

Classes had a waiting list of students, according to Education Director Margo Collins.

Campers are given the option of donating the difference between the in-person and online camp price to the nonprofit organization. Online camps run about half the cost of the in-person camps.

Adventure Theater still plans on holding three weeks of in-person camps, the week of July 13 and 27 and Aug. 10. So far, two weeks are 50 percent full and one week is sold out. Those camps enroll a maximum of 88 campers.

A final decision on those camps is scheduled to be announced at least 30 days in advance of each session. If they’re canceled, campers can apply the cost of the camp to next summer’s sessions or take a refund, less a deposit fee.

Generally, Adventure Theatre has 600 to 700 summer students. Collins said the summer offerings are a “huge chunk” of the organization’s annual academy revenue.

The Whitman Summer Camp, which traditionally operates from the Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, is trying a Camp @Home model this year.

“Honestly, we were really against the idea of a virtual camp,” said Jenn Whitman, who owns the camp with her husband, Doug. “The two words don’t go together in normal times, but then I keep thinking that if any summer kids need to be at camp, it’s this summer. Camp is more about the people and their relationships and connections rather than a physical location.”

Camp @Home is a half-day camp using a combination of live online classes, recorded sessions and independent activities. Campers can earn points for their camp “team” by participating in live classes, with the winning team receiving a Color War Drive-by Parade at their homes.

Doug and Jenn Whitman said the camps will include personal interactions. Counselors will make visits to campers’ homes for lunch dates on the front lawn, to drop off Camper of the Day Awards and to set up neighborhood scavenger hunts. So far, about 40 kids have signed up per session of the virtual camp.

Imagination Stage in Bethesda usually serves about 1,500 students through its summer camp programing, which accounts for about 15 percent of its annual revenue.

The organization has canceled all in-person camps for June and July. Camps are held in studios and theater space, so the phased opening for Montgomery County doesn’t put the camps back in play.

Summer programming is being offered online all summer with interactive theater arts experiences with teaching artists. Nearly half of those campers who had signed up for an in-person June camp have enrolled in the digital summer programming.

“Nothing can replace the joy of an in-person camp, but we hope to be able to be there virtually with our families and students until we are able to be back together in person,” Jessica Pettit, director of marketing and communications, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat.

Roundhouse Theater in Bethesda, which offers theater education classes in Silver Spring, has decided to offer camp virtually this summer starting June 16 with interactive classroom groups and live daily activities. Art supplies and activity sheets will be shipped to campers’ homes. Sessions prices start at $140 a week

The Siena School has also pivoted to virtual summer programming, which includes academic camps, coding, robotics and comics. Basketball camp, which Siena has offered before, is canceled.

Bekah Atkinson, director of admissions for the school, didn’t get into how much revenue might be lost due to the altered camp schedule, calling this year’s summer camp offerings a “resource to the community more than a revenue generator.”

“There is a relief when you make that decision and we would rather make that decision early,” Atkinson said. “Going back to the building is easy. What we wanted to do is to make sure all was thought through to get it online.”

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