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COVID-19 spoils summer at historic Dunmore camps

“I have shed more tears in the last eight weeks about the topic of not having kids on campus and staff on campus … Knowing the loss of camps for kids and young adults is a huge blow to our community, and to us personally and professionally.”
— Ellen Flight, Songadeewin camp director

SALISBURY — For the first time generations, the heartwarming tones of youthful exuberance — including unbridled laughter, splashing and singing — won’t swell within two historic camps and dance across the rippling waters of Lake Dunmore in Salisbury this summer.
Keewaydin Foundation officials recently suspended all camp operations for the summer of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The difficult-but-necessary decision means children from an estimated 400 families worldwide won’t have access to Camps Keewaydin, Songadeewin, and other foundation amenities — including the Keewaydin Environmental Education Center that has enlightened thousands of area public school children since 1973.
But more than the loss of fun, closure of the camps will results in seasonal job losses for scores of camp counselors, maintenance staff and food preparers. It will also have an impact on the Addison County economy, as the camp staff, attendees and their parents annually spend a lot of money locally, shopping at stores and staying at local hotels and B&Bs during a series of parents’ weekends.
“When things started going sideways with (the pandemic) in early to mid-March, we were all thinking, ‘We’ve been through SARS, we’ve been through the swine flu (epidemic) before, maybe this will burn out by the summer,’” Keewaydin Executive Director Peter Hare recalled during a phone interview on Thursday. “But as the weeks went by, the path forward became narrower and narrower.”
Hare and his colleagues officially cancelled 2020 programming in mid-May. They relayed that decision to the public through two messages posted on keewaydin.org.
“We make the hard decision, but we do so knowing that by being cautious we are being responsible citizens,” reads the leadership team’s message to Keewaydin families and staff. “We pride ourselves on helping the other fellow and leaving our campsite better than we found it. We teach how to make responsible decisions and how to take acceptable risks. We can take solace in the fact that this hard decision is the right decision. Keewaydin is ‘in it’ for the long haul. We have been around for more than 125 years and we will be around for another 125, and more.”
Hare explained that pandemic-driven requirements for social distancing would have been too difficult to implement in a camp setting, where kids and campers are in close proximity to one another in bunk houses, dining halls, canoes and other close quarters.
Ellen Flight is director of the Songadeewin camp for girls. She’s also president of the Vermont Camp Association, a trade group that looks out for the interests of statewide camp organizations. She worked with the Vermont Department of Health and officials at other camps in hopes of coming up with coronavirus-related rules that might satisfy the state.
“That (process) has dragged out, and the big bugaboo for them, and us, was the (14-day) out-of-state quarantine,” Flight said, noting around 90% of Keewaydin/Songadeewin’s campers and staff live outside of Vermont.
“They’re going to grapple with that issue for colleges, too,” she noted of the quarantine issue.
Indeed, Keewaydin/Songadeewin staff would have been challenged to guarantee a coronavirus-free environment from day one. The camp was set to welcome children and staffers from a wide range of countries and states, each with a different set of COVID-19 safety protocols.
“The issue with camps like Keewaydin and Songadeewin is, we get kids from all over the country, and also from abroad,” Hare said. “The whole thing in our minds was, ‘How in the heck are we going to be able to deliver, on opening day, all of these kids here safely, and staff, and not have the virus slip through — even with our best efforts to screen them?’”

SEARCH FOR A SOLUTION
Still, Keewaydin and Songadeewin officials held out hope into early May that they might be able to pull off at least a variation of the 2020 camp season.
The American Camp Association (ACA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ultimately came up with national guidelines for camp operations during the pandemic.
“But when they finally came out with those guidelines, they clearly weren’t showing a path for camps like ours,” Hare said. “They were frustratingly vague, with statements like, ‘If possible, do this,’ and, ‘Consider doing this.’”
The ACA’s and CDC’s suggestions, according to Hare, included “Keep kids in pods (small groups), if you can,” and “Separate kids.”
“Social distancing is antithetical to camp life,” he said.
Keewaydin and Songadeewin officials recoiled at the thought of how disastrous it would be if COVID-19 were to take hold at one or both of the camps.
“If the virus does slip through, the chances are it’s going to spread,” Hare said. “If that happens, all heck breaks loose. Where do you quarantine people? You’re going to have to bring parents back from across the country.”
It was a sad May for Keewaydin Foundation officials. The Keewaydin and Songadeewin campuses will stay closed to the public, though some of the land will be accessed by milfoil pulling teams from the Lake Dunmore Fern Lake Association.
“For camp directors — I have shed more tears in the last eight weeks about the topic of not having kids on campus and staff on campus,” Flight said. “Knowing the loss of camps for kids and young adults is a huge blow to our community, and to us personally and professionally.”
The 2020 COVID-19 camp cancellation comes at a time when the Keewaydin Foundation had almost realized its goal of being able to offer scholarships to 20% of its campers, according to Flight. And a large portion of those eligible for scholarships are Vermont kids, she noted.
Now the foundation, like many Addison County businesses, will unfortunately lose a summer’s worth of camp-related revenue.
“There’s a ripple effect,” Flight said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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