After getting their temperatures checked, saying goodbye to their parents and entering a side door that leads directly to their classroom, kids at Green Ridge Recreation Center are ready to begin their day at summer camp.
Like most things, Roanoke County’s summer camps look a little different this year. Toys are divided into individual zip-top bags. Only two chairs, diagonal from each other, sit at the colorful rectangular tables. Masked staff gently remind the elementary-aged kids to keep their distance. The two groups, older kids and younger kids, stay on separate schedules to avoid too much mingling.
“They’ll rotate between the gymnasium, the activity room and some guided activities and crafts,” said Scott Ramsburg, the marketing and administration manager for Roanoke County’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism department. “Most of the day, during a normal year, they’d go to the indoor pool or the outdoor pool, but unfortunately that’s not open yet.”
Roanoke County was able to continue its summer camp program, meant to assist working families, despite the COVID-19 pandemic by developing precautions and adjusting the usual activities.
The county usually runs more than 200 camps, marketing assistant Alex North said. But this year, resources were concentrated on just two locations: Green Ridge and the Brambleton Center.
“My favorite is the gym, because we get to use scooters,” said 7-year-old Maya Mcawlee. “But last time I twisted my arm. … It’s better.”
Maya sat across from Makayla Gill, who said her favorite part of summer camp is the field trips to TreeTop Quest.
Ramsburg said there are no traditional field trips this summer, because many of the typical locations, like movie theaters and bowling alleys, are closed. But they are making use of the county’s own TreeTop Quest, an aerial obstacle course, with extensive safety and cleaning procedures in place.
“They have net trampolines,” Makayla said. “And obstacle courses.”
“And ziplines,” Maya added.
Other camps in the region have mirrored the makeshift field trip idea to eliminate transportation concerns.
Melida McKee, recreation coordinator for Roanoke’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said its summer camps will be supplementing field trips with lots of outdoor play.
They’ll learn a lot about health if they haven’t already,” McKee said. “We still want to make the kids feel special and loved, but we may have to do so from 6 feet away.”
She said the annual Summer Play camp is usually held in two locations with about 40 kids each. The department planned to hold it this year in six locations with eight to 16 kids each, but three locations have been canceled because of lack of registration, which started June 15. The other three are on waitlist status, said McKee.
Donieta Scott, who has continued to work throughout the pandemic, said she doesn’t mind the lack of normal field trips. She said as long as her grandson, Royal, comes home tired, she’s happy. Royal is a rising kindergartner at the YMCA summer camp at Woodrow Wilson Middle School.
“I was a little hesitant [to enroll],” Scott said. “But they’re doing a good job. I feel safe with it.”
She said she was comforted by all the precautions in place and felt it was important for her grandson to interact with other kids to get him ready for kindergarten, even if the groups are smaller than normal.
The YMCA summer camps are an extension of Camp Hope, which began in March for children of essential personnel.
Jonathan Pait, the Gainsboro YMCA branch executive, said safety procedures for Camp Hope have carried over into summer camps. The procedures include three temperature checks a day, extensive handwashing upon arrival, social distancing and routine cleaning of classrooms and high-touch areas.
No parents or visitors are allowed in the building, and groups of children remain with the same staff throughout the entire summer.
“Those groups stay the same, that way if anything were to happen it’d be easy to track where that child’s been, who that child’s been exposed to,” Pait said.
The YMCA has also replaced normal field trips with outside time and indoor activities based on weekly themes.
“The other day we had a crime scene in one of the rooms. There was all kinds of evidence, the kids had to go in, they had to analyze the evidence, figure out who actually did it,” Pait said. “They were checking my shoes, and they were checking everybody else’s shoes because there were footprints in Play-Doh in there.”
Pait said that the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC were both very specific about childcare centers, and that planning around those guidelines was the most extensive part of the process. He said he is thankful that the YMCA had the resources to meet the guidelines. It’s still just summer camp to the kids, Pait said, and although the execution is different, he hopes they don’t notice too much of a difference.
“YMCA’s been doing summer camps and after-school programs for almost a century now, so that’s something we’re very versed in,” he said. “We feel very blessed and fortunate to be able to continue doing what the YMCA has been doing ever since its inception and that’s a testimony to our members and to our parents that placed their trust in us.”
Other localities, depending on the nature of their programs, decided it would be better to cancel summer camps entirely.
Salem Parks and Recreation typically offers between 18 and 20 camps every summer, mostly revolving around athletics.
The department decided June 11 to cancel all summer programs, said assistant director Eric O’Brien.
“We just felt like we didn’t want to pick and choose what camps to have,” he said. “Or even to back them up and give false hope and have to cancel again.”
He said the decision was made so late because the city was trying to look at every option.
“The big thing for us was really how were we going to have second graders to seventh graders maintain social distancing when we’re having groups of 30 or 40,” O’Brien said.
Don Holter, Salem High School’s head football coach, normally holds a three-day football camp. He agreed that social distancing would have been a challenge.
“If anyone’s seen a group of mainly boys from age six to 10 and 11, you get them together and social distancing is not one of their main priorities,” Holter said. “They’re on top of each other, they’re wrestling, fighting. My players are always ‘back up guys, keep your hands to yourself,’ and that sort of thing.”
Holter said he plans to get back to the camp next summer.
“It’s really just such an important part of our system here,” he said. “Just the enthusiasm of those youngsters for football, they can’t wait to be a Spartan one day.”
He said the governor’s guidelines and the National Federation of High Schools regulations would have made athletic camps very difficult this year.
“A football player should not participate in team drills with a single ball that will be handed off or passed to other teammates,” according to the NFHS guidelines for high school athletics under Phase 1. “Contact with other players is not allowed, and there should be no sharing of tackling dummies.”
Phoebe Needles Center, a Christian-affiliated camp and conference center in Callaway, also decided the logistics of an in-person camp would be too complicated. But it didn’t feel right to cancel the program, either.
John Heck, the executive director, said he almost felt a moral obligation to hold the camp in some form.
“The kids in Virginia have been more or less at home since March, and the need to interact with friends and other kids is really crucial,” he said. So the center is conducting virtual online summer programs for the first time in its 23-year history. Instead of the nine weeklong in-person camps, the center is putting on virtual micro-camps for youth and their families.
They are also offering outdoor, socially distant activities for families who feel comfortable participating. The micro-camps include a range of activities like game night, story time and virtual escape rooms via Zoom. In-person activities include community service projects and on-site outdoor activities like archery and ropes courses.
Matthew Perry, the director of programs, said that participants will be screened and that the activities lend themselves to social distancing because they are outside.
Heck said he got the idea for the virtual summer camp when he read about a woman holding a fencing and sword fighting camp online.
He said he thought if she could do fencing online, the Phoebe Needles Center could definitely hold some of its programs online. The biggest challenge has been the lack of internet access in the area, Heck said, so they’ve partnered with Ferrum College and use the school’s facility and internet to reach as many people as possible.
But the numbers are still probably lower than normal, said Perry, because a lot of people don’t have the necessary technology resources. Perry said the biggest goal is engaging campers, whether that’s online or in person, and the center is still doing that.
“The silver lining for me,” he said, “is being able to still have confidence in what we’re putting out.” Like Phoebe Needles, West End Center for Youth felt a need to continue its summer program.
West End Center is unique in its emphasis on academic enrichment, Executive Director Amanda Nastiuk said. The center serves students from low-income families, many of whom have experienced trauma and need academic and emotional support.
The center has 85 students enrolled this summer, with daily attendance hovering around 75, Nastiuk said. Normal capacity is about 110 students.
“We basically decided any benefits to our kids outweighed the risks,” she said, adding that Virginia entered Phase 2 right before they made their decision, which allowed them to let in more kids.
The center, which also hosts after-school programming during the school year, closed after Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools in March. As a licensed child care facility, the center could have stayed open, but “it just didn’t make sense for us,” Nastiuk said.
But as summer approached, staff agreed to reopen to provide support for their students.
Staffers wear masks and wipe down equipment. Kids don’t rotate to as many rooms and instead eat lunch in their homeroom. Masks are recommended for kids ages 10 and older, and everyone is trying to maintain social distancing, Nastiuk said.
Of course, kids can only stay so far apart when they’re excited to see their friends for the first time in three months.
“I was missing everybody,” said Amariana Levesy, 9, as she sat next to two of her friends reading books as the Mario Kart theme song from a nearby TV chimed softly in the background. The trio agreed that it was good to be back.
Staffers have come up with creative ways to get students out and about, such as going to the river, Nastiuk said. Soon, they will be able to start their hallmark West End walk to the Grandin Theater for a movie, albeit more distanced.
On a recent hot morning, a group of elementary-aged kids climbed and swung on the center’s playground while, across the street, middle school boys played basketball as girls sat under the shade and critiqued their skills.
For a moment, it felt like summer as usual.
Staff writer Claire Mitzel contributed information to this story.