Camps around the Bay Area are planning for summer programming with many unknowns still in place, one year into the pandemic: Will local case rates remain low? How will reopening continue to roll out? Will campers adjust to a regime of new limitations on how they learn together?
Marc Sidel, senior director of programs at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, answered the Town Crier’s questions about how overnight camp is resuming this year at the nonprofit organic farm and nature preserve after 12 months of extremely limited in-person programming. The conversation was edited for brevity.
Q: How did you decide to reopen only to overnight camping, for fifth- through 12th-grade campers, this year?
A: We organized a summer camp task force that included staff, former campers and a local pediatrician to help us evaluate whether or not to run Hidden Villa Summer Camp this summer and, if camp was in operation, which camps would be best to offer. After evaluating Hidden Villa’s options based on the health and safety of our camp community, the quality of our camp experience, financial viability and equitable access to our program, the task force recommended that we offer our two-week residential summer camp.
The task force recommended overnight camps largely to reduce the number of people entering and exiting our program, in an effort to limit the risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus within our program. Within our two-week-long overnight camps, we can screen and test everyone before they enter into their program cohort, continue to screen throughout the camp session, and more easily conduct contact tracing should the need arise. This conservative approach should dramatically reduce the risk of a virus outbreak within our onsite camp community and from Hidden Villa to the families of our campers and the greater community.
Q: Did your programs have to be structured differently to reduce the number of children present or create consistent cohorts? What gets lost when you have to reduce the scale of campers’ options?
A: Organizing campers and counselors into cohorts has been one of the most widely deployed strategies to improve health and safety at camps across the nation. The cohort size of 12 campers and four staff members we are using this summer is designed to be in accordance with Santa Clara County’s Guide for Programs Serving Children and Youth. While cohorting will limit campers from making as many choices this summer, cohorts will be able to split into two groups and make a small-group decision regarding their choice activities.
We are gently mourning the loss of our “All-Camp” activities. As we work to keep our cohorts separate from each other, we won’t be able to host the type of activities that draw the entire camp community together for large-scale celebrations like our traditional spaghetti dinners, rainbow tag and our camp talent shows.
Q: What have you been hearing from peers in the industry about what has and hasn’t worked well with residential programs? Why go with overnight camps only and not do any day programs?
A: The two informal networks we have been most tapped into are a Facebook group for camp leaders and a “Camp and COVID-19” Slack channel. We’ve gotten tons of ideas from other camps about communicating with our staff, campers and families as we plan.
The American Camp Association (ACA) is the formal network that has provided the best guidance for our decision-making and planning. As a certified ACA camp, Hidden Villa has access to guidelines, recommendations, data sets and reports like the “Camp Counts Survey.” We looked through the analysis of their survey data and learned that wearing masks, being outdoors, cohorting and distancing worked the best in 2020.
Q: All campers are doing rapid-result COVID testing on arrival this summer through ThirdRockMD – how did you develop this partnership?
A: ThirdRockMD was brought to our attention by one of Hidden Villa’s donors. Our goal is to catch COVID-19 cases before they could enter into our camp environment. The RT-LAMP test has been documented to have 98.7% sensitivity and 97.6% specificity (more information from the manufacturer can be found on the Cue Health website at cuehealth.com). It uses a compact, battery-powered COVID-19 testing instrument that can be easily set up onsite at Hidden Villa and allows ThirdRockMD to collect and process samples for every camper and counselor in real-time without transportation to a laboratory and without processing delays. The tests are more comfortable for use on youth because they employ shallow nasal swabs for sample collection. By rapidly processing in as little as 20 minutes, the RT-LAMP test will allow Hidden Villa to immediately address positive cases before other staff or campers are exposed.
This kind of rapid testing service is expensive, and we wouldn’t have been able to include it without a lot of support. ThirdRockMD CEO Scott Foreman and his awesome team saw the value in Hidden Villa Summer Camp, and support from them and a few major donors (families of former campers) made it possible to make sure this testing was accessible without barriers to every camper and counselor.
Outside of testing, there are other new expenses related to COVID-19 protocols, but our fundraising efforts for camp are mostly focused on securing the underwriting for camperships. Hidden Villa Summer Camp was built upon a foundation of bringing together a diverse group of campers. The richness of camp is strengthened by experiencing the different perspectives and identities represented among our campers and staff. We are increasing the number of camperships within our two-week residential program, reserving 50% of our total camper capacity for campers to attend with financial aid. (Disclosure: The Town Crier has been a supporter of camperships through its annual Holiday Fund.)
In the next couple of weeks, we will be sending out an appeal to our supporters, inviting them to directly support Hidden Villa Summer Camp in 2021.
Q: How will day-to-day programming adapt this year?
A: You might be wondering what a culture of health and safety looks like within the context of a camp program. It could be as simple as counselors having handwashing challenges with their campers (who has the coolest dance moves while you wash your hands?!), singing songs about social distancing and finding other creative ways to make safety more fun and lighthearted. We hope our campers walk away and share how easy it was to remember to wash their hands, to distance and to wear their masks appropriately, because everyone was doing it and their counselors made it fun.
Our camp staff is looking to hire a few more seasonal camp staff who are safety-minded and love working with youth. Hidden Villa Summer Camp might be as much fun for staffers as it is for campers!
For more information, visit hiddenvilla.org.