Every year children of all ages spend their school year dreaming of their time at camp–an American and Wilton tradition of adventure, fun, and escape. In this new post-COVID normal, kids are craving more escape than ever, and Wilton camps are slowly figuring out how to best deliver it.

However, the restrictions placed in Executive Order no. 7PP, which Gov. Ned Lamont issued on May 18, requires camps to be creative and comprehensive in how they provide this ‘fun’ in a way that is safe, cost-effective, and, ultimately, worthwhile.

Adjusting to Guidelines

The restrictions released by the State of Connecticut Office of Early Childhood include mandatory health checks, limiting group size to no more than 10 children, regular hand washing, having all participants sign a waiver acknowledging the risks of COVID-19, enhanced cleaning procedures, and mandatory mask-wearing for employees. Camps are also required to enforce social distancing, have a plan for when a child becomes sick, and report if anyone in the program is diagnosed with COVID-19 to families and staff.

Steve Pierce, director of the Wilton Parks and Recreation Department, said the department usually hosts camps that hundreds of kids participate in every summer. However, though the community is eager for answers about this year’s camp, Pierce said the department is still in the process of figuring out the best way to adapt to the new guidelines for each camp.

“My staff has been working for well over a month right now on probably 14 different scenarios for camps,” Pierce said. “From a static camp to an active camp like we normally run, [working out] student to counselor ratios, proper PPE, all that kind of stuff, whatever will be required. So whatever we can do as far as given by the state rules and the local rules, we will offer programs to kids.”

Pierce added that having multiple scenarios will allow them to easily “flip the switch” when guidelines and rules change throughout the summer, once Phase 2 guidelines are released. Before then though, they will have to get approved by the Wilton Health Department and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice before opening, which includes having many cleaning and safety procedures down.

“We literally have mapped out pathways through the building and how we’re going to get people to rooms without interacting with other kids or in the camp,” he said. “We’re down to that.”

For those camps that will be able to open, he said that they are working on ordering more craft material and making activities more individualized. He added that his team is looking into online programming for some camps as a possibility as well, to make the odd task of being an “individual in a group setting” more possible.

Pierce said one challenge the department faces in creating programming is how to limit use of shared equipment among children. He added that this has huge implications when it comes to summer sports, where the game relies on a team all touching a ball. The department hopes to release more information this week, he said, and appreciates the community’s patience.

Expenses & Demand

Pierce added that although the town’s camps will follow all state guidelines and get approved by the town health department, it’s ultimately up to parents to decide if they are comfortable with having their children attend. However, for many parents, childcare provided by camp is a necessity. Pierce said that the Parks and Recreation department is sensitive to the fact that people working now are in need of childcare, which is a motivating factor in reopening on June 22.

Sharon Cowley, the owner of Create Learning Center, a preschool and after school art center in Wilton, also recognizes the need for childcare. She says she will be opening camp, no matter the expense.

“I know a lot of people have to go back to work because of companies getting these PPP loans, and they have to go back or be terminated. I do want to provide that service but on the other hand, they might not have a job for very long…so we’re just taking it week by week for everyone,” Cowley said, adding that she won’t hold parents to contracts or summer schedules.

However, opening up means increased expenses–and associated worries, especially with not knowing if demand will be sustained.

“Unfortunately, making that decision [to open], puts me in the position of losing a lot of money, more than if I stayed close,” Cowley said. However, even though it will be difficult, she is “going with it and hoping it provides a service.”

Even with limits to the number of campers she can accept because of state requirements, demand “is really low” at the moment. Cowley attributes this to people finding it “a little scary,” that businesses are reopening. While the precautions sent out by the state so far are helpful, she’s uncertain if they will be enough.

“I feel a little at a loss because there are guidelines, but they don’t seem to make sense–for instance, taking everyone’s temperature before they come. That’s great, but I’ve also been reading and been told that children might not present with the temperature or they might not have the temperature and still be spreading something if they have it,” Cowley said, adding that she is being extra diligent in her cleaning procedures because of this. She will also be providing face shields for employees, sanitizing everything multiple times a day, and following all protocols.

Additionally, having very young children at her program makes things even more complicated. “[It’s] absolutely a worry because it’s very difficult to keep children socially distant, especially young children, [because] they play basically on top of each other.” Because of this, she plans to have kids do more individual activities, like art projects, or to play in “soap and water stations.”

Concerns & Extra Precautions

Similarly, the Wilton YMCA’s Camp Gordyland, a summer staple for many Wiltonians of all ages, will be in session starting June 22, but in a different capacity from past years, Mike Kazalauskas, the Camps and Sports director at the YMCA, said.

In an attempt to limit social interactions, he plans on assigning kids to groups of 10 people and having them stick only with those campers and staff throughout the week. That way, if a situation did present itself where a camper tests positive or shows symptoms of the coronavirus, the number of people forced to quarantine would be limited. Camp officials also will be taking many precautions in their cleaning procedures, Kazalauskas said, as well as checking each child’s temperature before they get to camp.

“We’re actually going to have one of the counselors, hang back and clean that area with all the proper cleaning materials, and then there won’t be another group there for a half an hour so that way we can get all the cleaning materials set and dry and all that,” Kazalauskas said.

With a day camp for children ages 3 to 5, the Y share Create Learning Center’s concern of how to teach kids to be socially distant. Kazalauskas said they will also rely on parents to help set the expectation that this summer will be different from others. Furthermore, Kazalauskas said the team is posting updates on Facebook about what parents should expect and encourages people to email him if their questions cannot be answered online.

[Editor’s note:  On Tuesday, May 26, Camp Gordyland officials posted an announcement on the camp Facebook page, that plan on sending the 2020 policies, procedures, and program structure to families on Friday, May 29 by 5 p.m. Beginning June 3, camp leaders will contact individual families who have already registered to firm up schedules. No action is required between now and June 2 for anyone still interested in sending their children. For families that intend to cancel existing registrations for the 2020 summer must submit cancellation requests by the end of the day, Tuesday, June 2.

In addition, State Senator Will Haskell will be hosting a virtual Town Hall today, Wednesday, May 27 at 6:30 p.m. on Facebook Live with Camp Gordyland Director Mike Kazlauskas as one of the panelists, along with Commissioner of the OEC, Beth Bye, discussing what summer camp in CT will look like.

Rising Starr Horse Rescue is also taking safety very seriously as it prepares to open up summer programming to the community. Since being forced to shut down when the pandemic broke, they have built portable hand washing stations, outdoor grooming stalls, and a new outdoor arena where programming will take place in order to entirely seperate summer operations from year-round boarders. Officials there said they are taking restrictions one step further, increasing staff and reducing the number of campers, by enrolling only 15 students a week and breaking that down to three groups of five students each.

Owner Kelly Stackpole added that each day will begin with checking all the kids’ temperatures using a no-touch thermometer. Throughout the day programming will be much more individualized than normal, with “handwashing sessions actually built into the schedule,” she said. Furthermore, kids will be given bandanas they can use to cover their mouth and nose, and will leave all their equipment onsite during the week.

Since Rising Starr is not considered a camp, Stackpole currently plans to start her summer programming on June 15 and offer programs weekly for 11 weeks, with some weeks even “close to closing.” Stackpole said that though she knows this summer will be a challenge, she is excited to open her barn up to the community, especially in a time as tough to navigate as this.

“This is going to be a tough summer on children and adults alike. It’s hard for us and it’s 10 times harder for them,” Stackpole said. “Human beings, right, we use [our] five senses and now, we’re taking a big one away…So I think it’s going to be great that they can touch the horse.”

Going Online

For other camps, instead of adapting to new rules, they have switched gears entirely, by moving all programming online. The Wilton arts community in particular has ‘zoomed’ to create online solutions, making sure that despite social distancing, no one is left in the dark.

Wilton Children’s Theater is offering virtual summer programming with two camps:  a workshop of The Aristocrats Kids production directed by Skip Ploss that will run from June 18 to July 2 over Zoom, and a program for older kids in which the campers will collaborate with Rebecca Nisco to write and virtually perform a completely original musical.

Similarly, Wiremill Academy for the Performing Arts co-founders Mary Jo Duffy, Sarah Pfisterer, and Rick Hilsabeck decided to approach the summer virtually as well, after successfully adapting their spring play to online rehearsals.

“The whole process is definitely labor-intensive but the kids are learning so much,” Duffy said, referring to the online rehearsals and performance.

Summer programming will consist of two virtual plays:  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from June 22-July 3 for Grade 6-9, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from July 13-24 from Grades 3-5; and an online Audition Master Class for Grade 6-12 from July 27-31. In addition to that, Wire Mill has invited Kelly Gleason, a Broadway performer and dancer, to teach an online dance class over six weeks, to keep kids moving despite being stuck at home.

“It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of stumbling block is put up, people in the arts find a way to adapt to the situation and, historically, some of the most incredible art has come in the most difficult of times,” Pfisterer said.

With the online format and moving the camp from five hours to two hours, the team has reduced the price for camp as well. At the end of each camp session they hope to create a virtual play with all the kids that they can stream on YouTube for the community to watch.

“We’re going to add some underscoring and give it a little bit more of a film feel than a play,” Hilsabeck said. He added that teaching kids how to perform for a camera rather than on a stage also gives kids new skills, which is also important to them as teachers.

Positive Results–Keeping Connection Despite Distance

Moreover, moving Wiremill’s operations online will also allow students from all over the country to join in, the trio said, enabling more connection–something that’s more important than ever, Pfisterer said.

“Some kids are dealing with a lot of anxiety. They’re scared or they feel pressure with school or isolated all of the many, many things you can imagine that people are feeling,” Pfisterer said. “We really want this to be a source of joy for them and happiness and not a source of stress.”

Being intentional about connection during summer programming was a huge part of Rising Starr’s goal as well, Stackpole said, adding that the farm’s life coach “had a lot to do with the structure of the camp this year.”

“We still want [participants] to feel like they’re a team,” she said. “Nobody wants to be alone.”

Parks and Rec’s Pierce added that though camps this summer through his department will “be very different,” his team is ready to adapt and help kids return to a sense of normalcy this summer.

“Parks and Rec people are pretty adaptive so we will adapt to whatever we have to,” Pierce said. “People in Parks and Rec are usually pretty positive folks–I mean people come to you for fun so we just want to get the community back up and running as far as facilities and programming as soon as we can, and hopefully get back to some sense of normalcy.”