Summer programs thrive — under COVID guidelines
Eddie Cochrane sang that “there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues,” but Methow Valley kids know better. Not only is there a cure, but it’s also a prevention.
It’s summer camp in the Methow: hot sun, soft wind, clear water, clean air, fertile soil — the outdoor playground that surrounds us provides not only an ideal learning environment, but also one that feels remarkably safe and relatively normal.
Although many of the valley’s youth summer camps are not running due to COVID concerns — including Confluence Gallery’s popular art camps, The Merc Playhouse workshops, and the Pipestone Music Summer Camp — three organizations were able to meet requirements for operating kids’ day camps this summer: Methow River Camp, Classroom in Bloom, and Little Star Montessori School.
In terms of daily operations, says Kim Bondi, executive director of Classroom in Bloom, the school garden’s camps have been modified to meet COVID requirements, but the transition has been relatively uncomplicated. Dani Reynaud, Little Star Montessori School’s executive director, echoes that, saying that things feel fairly normal, despite COVID-related adjustments. And Dana Visalli, instructor of the Methow River Camp, notes that the camp structure was easily modified to “remain within the parameters of state regulations.”
Health checks, sanitation
When campers arrive at the garden each morning, masked up, Classroom in Bloom staff take their temperature with a forehead scan and ask them a series of questions about their body and how they are feeling. Next, they ask the parents if there is COVID at home or if a contact tracer has been in touch with the family. If the temperature and health questionnaire raise no concerns, students enter the camp, remaining masked throughout the day except when they are working alone or at a 6 feet or greater distance from another child.
Methow River Camp followed similar guidelines during its five-day camp last week, says Visalli, who has been leading the “Eco-Adventure” camp for 30 years. Visalli says, “We wanted the youngsters to learn about the plants, the animals, and the living relationships of the natural world around us, and the kids wanted adventure. So we combined the two.”
As students arrived for camp each day, instructors took their temperatures with a forehead scan and administered a health questionnaire. The five Seattle-based participants all took COVID tests before arriving at the camp. Methow River Camp did not require students to wear masks, although several chose to.
Little Star Montessori conducts forehead temperature scans and health checks upon arrival as well, says Reynaud. Because Little Star’s participants are so young (6 and younger), the school is thoughtful about speaking openly with the children about the precautions, framing the new protocol around “keeping ourselves, family and friends safe and healthy” while acknowledging that “we have all been staying home or doing things differently while sickness is going around.”
Following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), Little Star is not requiring students to wear masks, although parents and caregivers must wear them during pick-up and drop-off periods.
Reynaud says, “these organizations recognize that making children wear masks is not always feasible. In addition, there are some medical professionals who feel that children wearing masks can create more face touching [and] interest in other children, getting close to their friends’ mask.” Reynaud notes that Little Star is keeping a close eye on YMCA practices, as they have been very successful at minimizing risk.
Little Star teachers are equipped with eqpd masks made in Twisp, but do not wear them all the time, according to Washington Department of Labor and Industry guidelines, which “recognize that children often need to see the facial expressions of their caregivers to facilitation communication and provide appropriate care for children.” When it is in the best interest of the child, Reynaud says, teachers remove their masks.
Social distancing in camps is facilitated by rotating students through learning and activity stations — a bit of an orchestrated dance through which kids flow seamlessly. For Methow River Camp, these activities include river walks, weaving cattails, and canoeing. “Most of our activities are conducive to social distancing,” says Visalli, noting the 17-foot long canoes that keep students separate. “Canoeing is the perfect activity for a pandemic.”
For Classroom in Bloom, the stations are weeding, planting, garden chores and art. “We have 1.5 acres of garden,” Bondi says, “so it’s quite easy to separate kids into their own little areas.”
Little Star designed a rotating playground and classroom schedule that keeps individual groups of students separate. Additionally, Reynaud notes, “at times like snack and lunch, we will pull out every other chair at the table to allow for more space between children during eating times.”
Smaller group sizes, too, help with social distancing. Typically, Bondi says, Classroom in Bloom camps consist of 16-18 kids in one large group. This year, however, students are in two groups of eight, with one lead instructor for each group and an assistant instructor helping with the younger group. Similarly, Methow River Camp reduced its camp to two groups of 11 students, and Little Star is operating groups of 10 children.
Both Little Star and Methow River Camp shifted from offering overnight camps to operating solely as day camps in 2020. “We could have implemented sanitizing and social distancing measures,” says Reynaud of the school’s popular overnight archery camps, “but with smaller group sizes, it meant that we needed more teachers. We needed those overnight teachers to work the day camps in order to prioritize the local families who need their kids to attend the camps so they can work.”
Little Star also moved its camps for 5- and 6-year-olds off-campus for the entire summer, to a Big Valley property owned by Rick and Laura Smith, who have donated the use of the outdoor location for six weeks. This freed up additional classroom space so that the younger students could have more space for socially distanced learning and play.
All three camps implemented more handwashing stations and increased vigilance around hand sanitization, particularly around mealtimes. Classroom in Bloom camp participants each carry their own basket with hand tools, writing implements, and other individual items. Little Star staff spend more time sanitizing learning materials between student groups, and they have scaled down the number of learning materials available on the shelves at any given time.
Both Bondi and Visalli point to the importance of children spending time outside in the clean air and bright sunshine, for their emotional and physical health. “There’s no healthier place on the planet,” Visalli says. “These kids are out in the immaculate, brilliant air and sunshine and fresh water, enjoying the beauty and excitement and natural history of the Methow Valley.” Reynaud adds that Little Star students “will be spending as much time as possible outdoors” as well.
Studies show that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is 20 times greater indoors than outdoors, because wind disperses viral droplets and bright sunlight kills some of the virus in a matter of hours. Also, large open spaces are not conducive to viral droplets building up and recirculating, that way they would in an enclosed structure. Thus the outdoor classroom offers a lower-risk environment than the traditional classroom.
Reynaud notes that the CDC and the DCYF “recognize the importance of social and emotional connection for young children and we will continue to foster and encourage this.” Bondi reports that “we are getting a lot of messages from parents and health professionals about mental health, telling us how important it is to let kids get to be with other kids in a safe and educational space. The kids are able to unwind here, decompress a bit from the stress of the pandemic.”
For Visalli and the other River Camp instructors (Anaka Mines, Rob Crandall and Katie Russell), building a relationship with the outdoors is not merely a component of the camp, it is the purpose of the camp. “Our children had a wonderful time doing what Methow children should be doing,” Visalli says. “Experiencing the Methow.”
Visalli adds that many children arrive at River Camp not being able to identify the ubiquitous Ponderosa pine. “When they leave River Camp they can do that,” he says, “along with some other things they learned about trees and bird songs.”
River Camp students also left with an unexpected bonus this year — a tuition refund. “We offered the day camp for free this year,” Visalli says, “in honor of our 30th year. In fact, we have decided that as a celebratory note we will offer River Camp for free every 30 years!”
Little Star and Classroom in Bloom both maintained their usual financial aid programs, offering scholarships to families who might not have otherwise been able to afford to send their children to the camps.
Methow River Camp always fills quickly once registration is open; in the past few years, the camp has filled in less than 24 hours. This year, Visalli says, camp dates were pushed back a week in hopes of Okanogan County going into Phase III of reopening, but that did not happen. Two participants had to drop out due to the date change and those slots were not filled.
Although some families pulled their children from camps due to COVID concerns or personal schedule changes, enrollment in both Classroom in Bloom and Little Star camps has been robust. There is some limited availability in both garden and Montessori camps, especially as families’ plans change throughout the summer. Visit classroominbloom.org or littlestarschool.org for more information.
In addition to providing children with familiar, safe, educational spaces to learn and play, summer camps in the Methow Valley provide an essential service: caring for children so that parents can work. Many of the children in Classroom in Bloom camps are children of health care workers, Bondi says, and it feels good to be able to serve them.
Little Star extended its regular programming through the end of June in order to accommodate the children of essential workers, as well as expanding camp hours and camp days to give parents of 17 children at the Twisp campus and 58 at the Winthrop and Big Valley camps more work time.
But it is the “joy of children and parents,” Reynaud says, that is the most rewarding aspect of offering summer camps in the face of pandemic restrictions. At first, Reynaud says, it was overwhelming. “How are we going to be able to offer the Little Star experience with all this?” she wondered. But teachers stepped up and parents have been understanding, and it already feels relatively normal. “You get used to it,” Reynaud says. Kids are still laughing, playing and learning. The Little Star experience transcends the masks and hand washing.
Bondi notes that “it is so sweet to have all these kids back in the garden. They’ve been really respectful of the new guidelines — they’ve adapted, it’s pretty amazing.” Visalli adds, “There is nothing more delightful or uplifting than seeing our young people out on the beautiful clear water in the sparkling sunshine.”