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Summer Camps, Campers In Limbo As They Await State Guidelines

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Back in January, Joyce McKinney had things all worked out for her 10-year-old daughter, Amelia.

"She was booked for camp every single week until school starts again," McKinney said.

Those plans included camp at Durham's Museum of Life and Science and a theater program at the Emily K Center, enriching experiences for her daughter and essential help for McKinney, a full-time working veterinarian, and her husband, a physician at Duke hospital.

"In reality, like, this is our childcare for the summer," she said.

But the coronavirus pandemic and related health restrictions have wiped out much of the summer plans for Amelia. Now McKinney and her husband are scrambling to find alternatives, including hiring one of Amelia's old babysitters. And McKinney, whose daughter is an only child, said camps provide something else that is vital.

"Social learning, learning how to, you know, be a good friend and how to listen to people," said McKinney.

North Carolina families have been stuck mostly at home for the past couple of months and many parents like the McKinneys were hoping to send their kids to summer camp programs in the coming weeks. Some day camps have been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak and overnight programs are waiting to hear from the state whether they'll be able to operate under revised public health restrictions.

In March, local governments began shutting down schools and limiting the size of gatherings to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Then Gov.Roy Cooper issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

"So we decided to cancel the first two weeks of camp," said Wendy Tonker, executive director of Schoolhouse of Wonder, a 30-year-old, nature-based program that started in Durham's West Point on the Eno city park and has expanded to include camps in Wake and Orange counties, serving around 6,000 kids a year.

"One of the things that Schoolhouse is known for is our comfort with many activities that other camps feel are too risky," said Tonker. "So we throw tomahawks, we do bows and arrows, we jump off of rocks into the river, we run through the woods with abandon, playing games."

But COVID-19 presents risks that Tonker says she and the camp's board were not willing to take.

"There simply wasn't time to revamp our programming, to rewrite our safety protocols," she explained.

Now Schoolhouse's full summer program has also been scrapped. Families are receiving 75% refunds — a major hit since Schoolhouse gets 95% of its revenue from fees for service, according to Tonker. Fourteen of the program's 19 year-round staff members have been laid off.

Camp Weaver is a day and overnight camp program for six to 16-year-olds run by the YMCA of Greensboro. Executive Director Jamie Cosson explained how Camp Weaver has adjusted to the state's social distancing guidelines.

"You know, in our dining hall, for instance, when they eat we have them eating six feet apart so there's only no more than three to four at a table that normally seats 10," he said.

All equipment must be sanitized between uses — and some close-contact activities like basketball and football have to be avoided in favor of alternatives.

"You know, if it's a scavenger hunt where you're with your cabin and you're trying to find a lump of gold or an item in the woods, that type of activity may be just fine," Cosson added.

Right now Cosson and directors of other overnight programs are waiting to see if new guidelines will allow sleep away camps to assemble larger groups of, say, 50 people, versus the 10-person maximum under the current health restrictions. Either way, it would still be very different from the traditional camp experience.

"We would assemble 200 people at a campfire. Well now we may just have three campfires that have 50 children or whatever," Cosson said.

Cosson said camps are needed now more than ever. Something he realized during a recent Zoom meeting with potential staff members — many of them former campers — eager to hear whether they'll have jobs this summer and be able to reunite with friends.


As for 10-year-old Amelia McKinney, she said in a Zoom interview that despite the disappointment of camp cancellations and not getting to see friends she hasn't seen for awhile, she's going to try and stay positive.


"And think about how it's going to be after this is all over and that next summer, hopefully, I can go to all my camps that I wanted to go to and have lots of fun," she said.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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