As guidelines evolve, local camps prepare for pandemic-altered season

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May 26—After the COVID-19 pandemic led YMCA Camp Takodah to cancel last year's summer season for the first time in more than a century, campers will be back on-site in Richmond in just over a month.

And for the most part, camp will feel fairly normal, Director Ryan Reed said, with plenty of sports, swimming and arts and crafts, all mostly outdoors.

"The camp experience will remain largely the same, there will just be masks now, and some testing, and things like that," he said. "... So if you're a camper who's come to camp in the past, this summer will feel very similar."

But with many camp-aged kids still ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, New Hampshire has outlined guidance for overnight camps like Takodah to follow this summer.

"Unless all the campers are vaccinated — meaning all the ones from 10 to 15 — camp will look different," said Doug Sutherland, executive director of Brantwood Camp in Greenfield. "And because that most likely will not happen, camp will look different this year."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this month extended emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to children 12-15, making that the youngest age group eligible for the shot.

The state health department's best practices for overnight camps, issued April 29, include asking campers and staff members to get tested before their arrival, the day they arrive and again within their first five to seven days at camp.

Additionally, the guidance says overnight camps should keep small groups of campers and staff separate from each other so cabins can act like individual households.

"Camp will be a lot like how families have operated," Reed said of Camp Takodah's plan. "So if you're in a cabin of campers — 10 campers and two staff members — in that cohort, masks are not required, social distancing is not required."

But when campers and staff members interact with anyone outside of their cohort, they will be required to maintain physical distancing, and wear masks, Reed added.

All of this state guidance could change, though, Reed said, as federal guidelines for summer camps continue to evolve, and the vaccine rollout progresses. He noted that New Hampshire's guidance for summer camps has shifted several times over the past few months. This has made planning for the summer challenging, said Mark Stehlik, executive director of Camp Glen Brook in Marlborough.

"It's by far the most logistically complicated summer camp we've had to plan," he said. "And the changing guidelines have presented real challenges for how we plan ahead, but everyone has been adaptable to the changes to provide a safe and fun summer camp experience."

Reed added that he believes the state could further loosen its coronavirus protocols for summer camp in the next several weeks.

"And we certainly would be open to that," he said.

Even if that does happen, though, Sutherland said he plans to keep Brantwood Camp's policies the same throughout the summer.

"People will be wearing a mask even if they are vaccinated. People will be distancing, even if they are vaccinated. That's what we're doing this summer." he said. "... At camp, we have to have some sort of consistency."

While Reed said Camp Takodah expects all of its staff members to be vaccinated against COVID-19, other area camps say they're not requiring the shot.

"We are strongly encouraging vaccinations. We are not requiring them for staff members," Sutherland said of Brantwood Camp's policy. "For campers, the same thing."

Ashley Engelbrecht, camp director at the Keene Family YMCA, which operates a traditional summer day camp and a gymnastics day camp, said the Y isn't requiring vaccines, either.

"But I'm finding that the staff that have come and applied have offered me their vaccine card," she said.

Dan Smith, CEO of the Keene Family YMCA, said the organization still highly encourages staff members to get vaccinated, but trusts its existing COVID-19 protocols like masking, distancing and dividing kids into cohorts will limit transmission. He added that the Y has not seen any COVID-19 cases transmitted within its child care and afterschool programs this year.

The Swanzey Recreation Department, which runs a day camp at Swanzey Lake, isn't mandating the vaccine, either, but Recreation Director Ashlee Crosby said many staff members are getting vaccinated voluntarily.

"We have a lot of staff coming from the [Monadnock Regional] School District, so I have a feeling a lot of them will be fully vaccinated before summer camp begins," she said.

Day camps like those in Swanzey and at the Keene Family YMCA don't have the same sort of state guidelines as overnight camps, but still plan to follow similar procedures, like separating campers and staff into cohorts, and maximizing time outdoors.

Even with all of the changes to summer camp this year, though, Sutherland at Brantwood Camp said the experience can help provide a sense of normalcy for kids again.

"Everything that we've been doing since this all started has been towards this summer. All the stressors, all the phone calls and meetings, the near-constant Zoom webinars, have been geared towards this summer," Sutherland said. "... Everything's been so different this year that camp can be that thing that's familiar. Even though it will look different, camp will be what it's always been."

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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