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Colorado summer camps are gearing up for a full season of swimming, sightseeing — and sanitizing

Camps will make a big return this summer, with parents and kids alike eager for more carefree days. Many camps, catering to fewer kids, have already hit capacity.

Janet Enriquez, a teacher in the STEM lab, helps kids learn about rocks and minerals. After she adds water to sandstone and manipulates it with a plastic knife, students marvel as it turns from a solid into wet sand. About 35 kids ages 6-11 years old spent time after school at the Johnson Boys and Girls Club in Denver on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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At Geneva Glen Camp tucked in Indian Hills off of U.S. 285, gone are the days of kids squeezing into the dining hall for shared meals, group chants and breakout songs — at least for last summer and this one.

But many of the camp’s other staples are making a comeback: overnights in cabins, outings on horseback and nature walks through spots like the old Ute trail, leading to Marshmallow Meadow.

At the Denver Zoo, day camps for the younger set sold out in a day, and the kiss-and-drop system for leaving kids at the circular driveway is here to stay. 

At Boys and Girls Clubs, leaders welcome overwhelming demand for summer camps as a return to normalcy for their cooped-up kids. They’ll bring in remote educational sessions from allies like the zoo if they run out of space in their own programs. 

And at JCC’s Ranch Camp overnight program in Elizabeth, campers will get tested for COVID-19 at least three times: Once to guarantee health before arrival, once at dropoff, and again three days into their session. 

All across Colorado, the message from summer camp operators is clear: Get kids back into the swing of summer camps for the sake of their well-being and for the harried parents who desperately need time away to work or repair their sanity. 

Day and overnight camps around the state are weaving together state and trade association protocols to guarantee coronavirus safety, most planning to operate at two-thirds to three-quarters of normal capacity and opening more slots as vaccinations spread and guidance loosens. Although kids won’t get the experience of years past, the same health protocols most kids got used to in school will help revive many of the best parts of camp they missed last summer.

Casey Klein, director of Geneva Glen Camp and president of the Colorado Camps Network, envisions summer camps once again being the centerpiece of many kids’ summer breaks.

“Missing last year was just devastating to some of these children,” Klein said. “And so it will be a healing process this year having all these kids return back.”

An elementary school student wanders the game room examining things with her magnifying glass at the Johnson Boys and Girls Club after school in Denver on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many campers can expect to bring their masks with them to camp, where they’ll be clustered into small groups, checked daily for symptoms and required to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer regularly throughout the day. 

The Colorado Camps Network, a nonprofit association of residential youth summer camps, has collaborated with the governor’s office and other state entities, including the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to outline guidance for overnight camps. 

The guidance covers everything from how to deal with suspected COVID-19 cases to how to line up campers in the chow line and scrub away whatever they leave behind.

Some camp don’ts: Don’t allow outside visitors or vendors inside camper areas. Don’t conduct family-style meals, and don’t let students chant and sing together over meals inside.

Some camp do’s: Screen staff, volunteers and campers when they first arrive for symptoms and exposures to the coronavirus in the last 14 days, and screen them daily before permitting them to take part in camp activities. Make sure camp members wash their hands or use hand sanitizer at intervals during the day. Cohort kids, keeping the same groups of students together for the entirety of their stay. Stagger activities and limit those in which kids cannot wear masks or stay 6 feet apart.

The guidelines leave decisions about the number of kids to allow in a cohort and in an entire camp to camp organizers, who must take into consideration local community transmission rates and state and local directives.

Regulators picked cohorting over capacity restrictions, hoping to keep kids safe while also helping the Colorado camp industry thrive — if only a little this year. Capacity restrictions would have forced camps to lose revenue without being able to cut back on any expenses, Klein said. The industry has already weathered a tough financial storm in the past year. The Colorado Camps Network estimates that resident camps in the state took a $45 million hit last year. Klein’s own camp, which runs off a $2.5 million budget, suffered a $1.3 million deficit last year, but fundraising support from families and camp alumni, along with a PPP loan and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan have helped the camp move forward. 

Hitting capacity won’t be a problem for many Colorado camps. Klein has seen interest among families surge, with most camps doing a lot better with attracting campers than they would in a normal year. His own camp, which will mark its 99th summer this year, opened registration in October and filled all slots within a couple days. Its waitlist now holds about 300 more kids.

Some families have been sending their kids to Geneva Glen Camp for as many as six generations. The camp, which offers archery, horseback riding, swimming, a ropes course, crafts, team sports and more, typically serves about 240 kids in each of four two-week sessions and will scale that back to about 230 this year.

The camp last summer replaced its traditional program with limited family camps and this year will follow COVID-19 guidelines, though most won’t spark significant changes at the camp. For instance, Geneva Glen will abide by cohorts, possibly by cabins, which is how the camp has operated in the past. Kids will maintain 6 feet of distance while sleeping, positioned so that one student’s head is near their neighbor’s feet. And the camp is already set up for potential quarantines, with kids divvied up by cabin.

The camp will also continue having two full-time nurses on staff and with doctors on call.

Staff members will not be required to be vaccinated, but Klein anticipates that most will be.

Counting 3-2-1 go, elementary school students spin a rope at the Johnson Boys and Girls Club after school in Denver on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The big changes for the camp will surround food and some of the camp’s signature activities, Klein said. Campers typically all eat together in the dining hall, but this summer older kids will eat separately from their younger peers. Rather than family-style meals, cohorts of masked students will walk through buffet lines, with masked staffers filling their plates. Tables will be spaced to keep groups separated. 

Klein, a former camper, himself, is still figuring out how to modify large-group programming. In past years, campers have spent their evenings playing games of capture the flag or putting on plays. That will have to look different this year, said Klein, who’s already bought extra tents and installed one new gazebo. Most of Geneva Glen Camp activities take place outdoors, but some indoor activities — like arts and crafts — will now move to a tent while camp organizers also have to prepare for inevitable rainy days.

The changes to camp operations will cost the camp about $35,000. 

“We’re trying to provide for the most normal, fun experience we can,” said Klein, whose parents previously ran the camp.

Many camps are chasing the same goal, but each one will have to adjust their operations in the ways that work best for them, he said.

“It’s time to let them break free”

The Denver Zoo has flipped the kids’ entry sign from “closed” to “open.” After shutting down day camps last year out of coronavirus concerns, the camps for summer 2021 are already nearly full. 

Capacity has been cut by about a third, to 20 campers in a class from 30, and one of eight usual sessions has been eliminated. “So we’re down 10 spots, per camp, per week, and we’re also down one camp,” meaning the loss overall of about 100 spots, said Courtney Swanson, camp and special programs coordinator for the zoo. 

While camps for younger children sold out the first day they were open in January, Swanson said, some spots  for older children still exist here and there. There is no waiting list, but new spots are posted periodically and parents should keep checking, she said. 

Campers will have their temperature taken at dropoff this summer, and anyone with an unusual number will be sent home. Kids and parents also will be asked some exposure questions. 

The new dropoff procedure may prove a big hit rather than a COVID concession. Cars will pull around to the zoo gates and drop children at curbside, rather than parents walking children all the way to a sign-in. For non-campers, a zoo spokesman said, timed-entry ticketing that began last year to spread out crowds will continue this year, and could go on indefinitely, as patrons seem to like it. 

Swanson said the summer without campers was really hard on the zoo staff and seasonal instructors. “So we’re, we’re really, really excited to get back to a little bit more normal and have kids back and have a really fun summer.”

Summer 2020 was a complete lockout for Jewish Community Center of Denver’s overnight Ranch Camp in Douglas County. This year, the JCC is reopening the ranch very carefully, the camps director Courtney Jacobson said. 

“We’re doing our best to create a bubble,” Jacobson said. The JCC is encouraging all staff to get vaccinated. The three-test system for coronavirus infections in new campers is another key. Each bunk house will become “the family home.” Inside that dorm, campers can take off their masks; anywhere they mix with outside campers or staff, masks go back on. 

Staffers will be trained to do more of the week’s duties themselves, without help from specialists or many breaks when campers are in different groups, Jacobson noted. That also cuts down on mixing, but demands more of employees. 

Staff also have to be trained for new kinds of social/emotional challenges among campers, Jacobson said. “It’s been a weird year,” she said. Kids have been shut in and away from friends, and may have to relearn some social skills. “Camp might be the biggest social gathering they’ve done for a year, so keep it safe and fun.”

Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver managed to maintain part of its summer lifeline to hundreds of families last summer, running at about 25% of normal at nine of its usual 18 sites, Chief Development Officer Patrick Gaines said. 

An elementary school student searches for the tools he needs for his creation made from clay in the art room at the Johnson Boys and Girls Club after school in Denver on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With strong support from donors and PPP loans “keeping them whole,” the clubs this summer will be able to offer programs at 18 sites, including 10 schools, seven buildings they own and an outdoor camp near Ward. They hope to serve 1,300 kids a day based on current guidelines, down from the typical 1,500 to 1,700, and increase those numbers every time state guidance loosens. 

Based on last summer, Gaines said, the kids will be ecstatic to bust out of their bubbles, even though they’ll have to cut back a bit on the energy once at the clubs. 

“Kids have just been caught in a state of suspended animation for 14 months by the time summer rolls around, and it’s time to let them break free,” he said. Counselors will have to temper some of that with the three- to six-foot distancing still required to stop COVID. “Kids like to tumble around and bump into each other. So sporting activities will be a little less rigorous than normal. And some kids coming in will have some apprehension, we will honor that. We’ll go the extra mile to demonstrate safety for our kids and our families.”

Mary Stein, owner and director of Dream Big Day Camp in Denver, is prioritizing safety above all else this summer. Last year, Stein abandoned her aspiration of operating three campuses with more than 150 staff and more than 1,000 children to run a single site. In June, Dream Big also launched an at-home camp option, in which counselors would facilitate organized activities directly at families’ homes.

This summer, Dream Big Day Camp will again open one location, catering to smaller groups like it did last year. The camp has had to reconfigure group sizes because of increased minimum wage and the need to have more staff to cover operations in the event an employee exhibits coronavirus symptoms. Whereas one staff person used to work with six kids, they’ll now be managing eight.

The camp will abide by many of the protocols other camps have committed to — cohorting, social distancing, hand sanitizing, masks and temperature checks — and will carry on with many of its regular activities, including sports and hiking.

Camp slots filled up two months ago, and Stein wishes she could open more, particularly as requests pour in from families who she said are “desperate.” She knows how much kids and staffers need something to look forward to and how much parents need a break, but the importance of safety outweighs the need to accommodate everybody.

For those kids who were lucky enough to secure a spot at Dream Big Day Camp, their days in the sun will serve as a reset after more than a year of uncertainty and disruption.

“Camp is therapy,” Stein said. “Running, jumping, playing, sweating, digging in the dirt is therapeutic, and therefore that’s what we do.”

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