COVID-19 & Summer 2021
As much as we all wish that the time of COVID-19 affecting our lives was over, we now know that the coronavirus will still be a significant factor for all of us into summer 2021. Fortunately, we at Four Winds do see a path forward to be able to have camp this summer, with modifications for safety. Executive Director Paul Sheridan has begun a roughly monthly series of emails to enrolled and waitlisted families, starting on January 25, 2021. We’ll post these emails for all below.
[First email – January 25, 2021]
Happy New Year. I hope that you and your campers are doing well in this strange and challenging time. For some of you, perhaps the turning of the calendar has opened up a bit of space for thoughts of Camp this summer. Indeed, here on Orcas, we think of little else.
We are confident that we can operate Camp in the summer of 2021, even though COVID-19 is still likely to be a significant factor. Of course, like everything in 2020 and now 2021, nothing can be certain, as frustrating as that is. Now that the holidays are behind us, the time feels right to open up a conversation with all of you about our thoughts on the Four Winds summer of 2021. I envision this as the first of an approximately monthly series of emails updating you on the status of Camp in this time of COVID. Since I’m going to ask you to process a lot of information in this email, later this week, we’ll have a Zoom Q&A session, which we’ll record for those who can’t make it. (Links for video and audio of Zoom Q&A)
This first email is long. We’ve been working on this for months, and there’s a lot to say. My instinct is to share my full thinking with you. But, perhaps some of you won’t be able to take the time to process it all right now. For those, here’s a summary:
- The documented experience of camps that did operate in summer 2020 shows a way to manage COVID-19 risk in a residential camp setting in a summer 2020 virus environment.
- With vaccines coming on board in the population, there is hope that the virus environment will be better in summer 2021 versus summer 2020. In particular, many of the most vulnerable will be protected, and we may be able to have most or all of our staff vaccinated.
- We do not anticipate that many campers will be vaccinated, and we do expect that COVID will still be a factor in the summer. The camps that operated successfully in summer 2020 employed modifications (pre-camp quarantining and tests, cohorting, masks, distancing, and moving most activities outdoors, among others) that led to their success. Though we don’t know what modifications we will have to implement yet, we’re planning on operating a plan similar to what the successful camps did in 2020. If the virus situation improves, we may be able to ease some of those modifications.
- Once we know what modifications we will have to implement, families will have a chance to assess whether it makes sense for their camper to attend in 2021 and withdraw if they choose with the option of a full refund. Of course, if camp is canceled entirely, we will offer full refunds, as we did in 2020.
- The clearest path to operating legally this summer is for Washington State to issue COVID operational guidance for resident camps for the summer of 2021. As of yet, they have not done that. I am on the leadership team of a recently organized group of resident camps, called the Washington State Camp Coalition, that is attempting to work with the state to form these guidelines. Understandably, the Washington State government has concerns that are more pressing to them than summer camp, so I can’t say we’ve made extraordinary progress yet. Still, I’m glad to have begun the conversation.
For those of you who want the full story, here we go:
I wrote earlier that I’m confident we can operate Camp in 2021. Why is that, particularly given climbing infection numbers and a slower-than-hoped-for rollout of the vaccines? Put simply, the camps that did run in 2020 showed us what does and doesn’t work. I was an advocate for closing camp in 2020. Based on what we knew at the time, I felt that it was the right thing to do. But, about 20% of the resident camps in the United States did operate in 2020. Some had outbreaks, and others did not. We now have information about what procedures worked and what to avoid when opening this summer.
Many of the 2020 camp outbreaks that made the news occurred at camps that employed strategies that seem flawed with hindsight. One camp required its staff to wear masks but not its campers. Another had a good plan on paper, but according to parents and summer staff, did not implement or uphold the procedures once camp began. Another relied solely on testing before camp, with no other precautions.
On the other hand, a group of camps, mostly in Maine, but also in a few other states, operated quite successfully. The CDC highlighted four of the Maine camps in a report, but approximately 20 camps in Maine ran similarly. Like us, they had campers from multiple states and countries, with some campers flying to camp. They had minimal cases and no secondary spread. When you’re approaching two dozen camps, thousands of campers and staff, several of which were the subject of a peer-reviewed report published by the CDC, you’re on to a system that can work.
These camps’ experience tells me that there is a way to operate in a summer 2020 virus environment. So, what did they do?
Each camp was slightly different, but all implemented some version of the following: pre-camp quarantining and testing, post-arrival testing, cohorting (meaning that closer contact is allowed within a cabin group than outside it), requiring all contact outside the cabin group to be at least two out of three – masked, outdoors, and distant, limiting visitors (the “bubble” strategy), increasing hygiene and cleaning, and modifying certain activities.
I know a number of the camp directors who ran this strategy personally and have spoken with them. I’m confident that we can run it too. It will be different than a normal summer, but here’s a positive nugget – when I asked the camps that ran this strategy whether it still felt like camp, the answer, from all of them, was a confident and resounding yes.
This brings me to another thought. Kids need camp this summer more than ever. After a year of isolation and digital overload, there could be nothing better than a session at Four Winds. If we believe we can operate safely, and if the government allows it (more on that in a minute), we will.
What about a vaccine? I’m sure many of you have been following the vaccine news as closely as I have. I keep telling myself that I’m giving up on the prediction business, but I have a couple of thoughts. First of all, it seems unlikely that many campers will be vaccinated before the summer. The vaccines are not yet approved for anyone under 16, and right now, the focus is on vulnerable adults and essential workers. I certainly hope we can have some campers vaccinated, particularly those with underlying conditions that might make them more vulnerable, but I think that planning for most or all of them to be vaccinated by June is not productive. If I’m wrong, that will be an excellent problem to have.
I am hopeful that we can have our staff vaccinated. In Washington, childcare workers (which includes camp staff) under the age of 50 are included in Phase 1B, Tier 4, which is projected for April. Other states have also prioritized childcare workers. There are many variables between here and there, but having our staff vaccinated would be a great step for Four Winds. Having perhaps 100 million Americans vaccinated before summer would improve the overall virus situation over what we saw in summer 2020.
Earlier, I mentioned the government allowing camp operations. Currently, there is no guidance in Washington State for resident camps to operate until Phase 4. The state has recently replaced its old phasing system with a new one, and the new one does not have a Phase 4, so even that phrasing is somewhat out of date, but the fact remains that if camp were scheduled to open today, the state guidance would be that we could not.
We have joined with 42 other resident camps in Washington to form the Washington State Camp Coalition, and I am serving on WSCC’s leadership team. WSCC has already met with Governor Inslee’s office to advocate for guidance for resident camp operations. While the governor’s office understandably has priorities other than summer camp right now, it is important to start the conversation early. We don’t need the guidance to be published today, but it needs to be published well before June for it to be useful for us. Beyond the conversation with the State, we are in close contact with the San Juan County Department of Health & Community Services. More to come on government guidance in future updates.
So what might camp look like in 2021? We can’t say with any certainty yet. We believe that we won’t be able to have camp with zero COVID precautions, as though it were 2019. We see a model to operate safely in a summer 2020 virus environment, as shown by the camps in Maine. We hope that in the coming months, with tens of millions of vaccines coming on board, including for our own staff, the virus situation will improve to the point that we can operate with modifications that are not quite as strict as the Maine camps implemented last summer, but we are prepared to implement precautions that are just as strict as the Maine camps if necessary.
Of course, as the camp picture becomes clearer, each family will have to make its own assessment as to whether camp is appropriate for their children this summer. While I am confident that camp can operate this summer, I don’t want this to come off as a sales pitch. I expect that some families will decide that the modified version of camp we are likely to operate doesn’t work for them, and that’s fine. For many others, I expect that a modified camp will be far better than no camp at all and that they will judge the risk to be a worthwhile one.
For those of you paying full tuition, and who selected to pay in full, tuition is due on February 1. Notices will be going out in the next few days. For all families paying full tuition, our cancelation policy states that the penalty for withdrawing goes up on February 1, to half of the tuition amount, or $3,250. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you were keeping an eye on those deadlines and wondering how uncertainty around COVID might interact with them. That’s entirely fair. (Note: Families that are applying for Financial Aid – you’re entitled to a full refund of any partial tuition you’re paying until April 1, when we hope to know a great deal more.)
Let me lay out a few principles. First, if we are not able to have camp in 2021, we will offer full refunds, just as we did in 2020. We’ve run the spreadsheets, and while they’re not pretty, we know Camp will survive even that. Many camps face the closing of their doors if they can’t operate in 2021, and we are thankful that we are not in that position. Second, I have indicated that at some point, we will communicate the modifications to the camp experience that are necessary for us to operate safely and in accordance with government guidance. When we do that, families will have an opportunity to withdraw with a full refund. In all of this, we will treat you as we would want to be treated. That’s been our guiding principle thus far, and it’s hard for it to steer us wrong.
That is the lay of the land as it stands today, and I’d say that’s plenty. As I said, we’ll have a Zoom Q&A session at 6 PM Pacific Time on Friday, January 29 (Links for video and audio of Zoom Q&A). We will record it for those that can’t make it. We will do our best to answer questions from the chat, but we appreciate your submitting your questions in advance.
Thank you for your confidence in Four Winds. We know that’s something that’s continuously earned, and we look forward to earning it again in this unprecedented time in our lives.
All the best,