COVID Camp: A Success Story

As the spring dragged on and COVID cases kept rising, it seemed almost impossible that camp could happen this summer. Then May rolled around and the much anticipated word from Governor Abbott arrived. Camps could open. But, only with a meaty set of guidelines from the American Camp Association (ACA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Texas Health Department.

For the following few days, the HOH office was home to the constant smell of Quat (the world’s foulest smelling disinfectant) and the biggest ongoing brainstorming session I’d ever been a part of. All to a cacophony of never-ending Expo markers squeaks, loud rills from the phone, no small measure of disagreement, and lots of what-if’s. Once we had the go-ahead, it wasn’t as easy as just opening up the gates! In an effort to keep our camp safe, we were set to reinventing the wheel. Now, with a mask.

Pods and Households

One of my favorite aspects of Heart O’ the Hills is how intermixed we are. Teens hang out with Seniors, Midgets hang out with Juniors. Age is not a big factor in who’s in your activities, or at your table. This means you get to know everyone on camp. This also means making camp fit into the guidelines provided by the ACA and CDC was nearly impossible. The ACA suggested using “concentric circles.” This means eating, sleeping, and playing with the same people. For camps set up to eat and travel to activities by cabin, this meant little change to their programming. However for us, this meant a full reworking of schedules and programs.

One step of this was breaking down our campers into Pods and Households. A Pod was each Division. Meanwhile, a Household was a smaller group of people who ate, slept, and did activities together. By keeping Pods and Households consistent, if there were to be an outbreak on camp, quarantining would be easy. We could easily quarantine, or send home, campers and staff from that Household or Pod instead of sending everyone home.

How We Ate

Another thing we had to change was meal times. The Dining Hall, which already struggles to accommodate our usual 150 girls, needed to be cut to half capacity. In order to correctly enforce social distancing, as well as remain within Households, we had to work on a staggered schedule. S’midgets ate in the first shift spanning from the Dining Hall to the Patio Room while people from the office, our nurses, and the horseback staff dined in the Sunshine Loft. After we finished the first meal, served by a single person at each table every meal from paper boats onto our Styrofoam plates using plastic utensils, we cleaned and sanitized each table and bench before the next shift of Juniors, Seniors, and Teens could enter.

How We Played

Working on a staggered schedule meant S’midgets and Juniors, Seniors, and Teens (JST) were an hour off of each other all day. This made aligning classes like horseback and swimming, that could only be taught by certain instructors, a bit of a challenge! Our solution was splitting our normal four morning classes and two afternoon classes into three morning classes and three afternoon classes. Doing this allowed two class periods to align in the morning and the afternoon block.

In an effort to preserve our Households/Pods, we divided camp into five sections. These “Podrants” served as areas for activities. Instead of hopping around from horseback to the waterfront to the Art Studios like campers usually do, campers traveled to activities within their Households and spent a half day in each Podrant. This made cleaning equipment between classes easier and prevented Pods from mixing between classes.

How we divided our grounds into five ‘Podrants’ this summer

During a normal summer, each girl takes up to 12 different activities, however with the Podrants in place, campers took 25 different classes. This variety meant campers had a chance to truly try it all. It also meant counselors taught a wide variety of classes and were sometimes learning right alongside their kids.

All activities, excluding those that required specialized instructors, were taught by counselors from within the Household. Any counselors who taught outside of their Household kept their distance and wore masks.

Mitigating Risks

Temperatures were checked first thing every morning and kept on logs. Anything concerning was immediately reported to our Medical Staff. Overall we had less sickness on camp than normal. It is normal for some sniffles or minor ailment to occur when people from so many far-flung places suddenly come to a new place and live in such close quarters. However, some of the protocols put in place, like daily deep cleaning of cabins, less singing and more distance, helped prevent nearly all of our usual “camp crud.”

Through all the fear and confusion one thing was clear: Kids needed camp more than ever. In order to make camp happen and keep our campers and staff healthy, we had to totally rework the The Heart’s “normal.” Even this post doesn’t go into every detail of our protocols this summer.

Hats Off to Camp Families

We are more than lucky to have made it through the summer COVID-19 free. Even camps who put into place some or all protocols still had cases on camp. That being said, the measures taken by camp families, campers, and staff kept our “bubble” at The Heart as risk-free as it could, and must be acknowledged. If just one family fudged on their 14-day pre-camp, quarantine or one camper came to us sick, this could all be a very different story. However, we are thankful and blessed to have camper families who know just how important camp is for their kids and a staff that is willing to sacrifice their off-camp time for the sake of keeping The Heart as safe as possible.

About the Author

Rachel Pannell

Rachel is a rare fourth generation Heart girl. Her great-grandmother was the nurse for our first summer as Heart O’ the Hills Camp, and her grandmother and great aunt were campers, as were her mother and aunt. This fall she will be at UTSA as a marketing major. Rachel is a Jo Jones girl.

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