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Social distancing requirements from coronavirus bring uncertainty for summer camps

Even before Denver Zoo canceled its Summer Safari, Lesley Millhouser was reluctant to send her children to the camp that at least one of them has attended for seven years.

“It makes me nervous to put my kids out touching things because it’s a danger to others,” Millhouser said.

After surveying parents and talking to experts, zoo leaders learned others shared Millhouser’s concerns. Camp was canceled, making 2020 the first summer in 30 years the zoo won’t host school-age children on summer days, Jake Kubié, the zoo’s spokesman, said.

“This decision was made with the goal of protecting the safety, health and wellness of campers, staff, and families,” a letter to parents said. “As state and local guidelines surrounding COVID-19 evolved, so did our realization that the joy and discovery of the Summer Safari experience could not be achieved this year. ”

Nearly 400,000 children attend summer camps annually in Colorado, giving their parents a solution for daily child care and providing structure, entertainment and education for the campers. It’s also a big business, employing more than 20,000 seasonal workers every year in Colorado, according to the American Camp Association Rocky Mountains.

Gov. Jared Polis is expected to announce this week whether camps will be allowed to reopen and if so, what restrictions and health precautions will be in place. Until then, parents and children will be in limbo.

The Millhouser family didn’t wait for the governor, though. They decided their 11-year-old, Vivian, and their 8-year-old, Ivy, would stay home for the summer of 2020. Vivian especially was disappointed to miss out on two weeks at Avid4Adventure camp in Boulder. Now, they are trying to figure out summer child care, trips and other activities. To add to the complications, Millhouser also is job hunting after being laid off in April.

“For a lot of people, this is what they plan on for child care,” she said. “And not just child care, but camps give kids a fun summer. If you think about taking away both….oof.”

Nationally, summer camp operators have gone in different directions as they monitor state health orders and the disease’s progression. Some are opening, some are closing, some are moving online.

The American Camp Association and YMCA of the USA coordinated to write a field guide for camps on how to operate safely, said Reid McKight, an ACA spokesman for Colorado and Wyoming. The ACA accredited camps are focused on health and safety as they try to provide summer activities.

“It’s important to think about while parents can go back to work, how do we help our young people lean into being kids again?” Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, said. “We’ve got to provide them with activities that are educational and let them be free.”

Already, Denver Public Schools has closed its campuses for the summer, meaning all sorts of sports, academic and arts camps were forced to change plans.

Denver’s Dream Big Day Camp shifted its format from large groups playing on slip n’ slides, making arts and crafts, dancing and exploring the outdoors to organizing similar activities for home-based, small groups, camp director Mary Stein said.

“It’s important for families to know that safety is our number one priority,” Stein said. “If they feel comfortable sending their kids to camp, I highly recommend it because the kids need it.”

For June, Stein asked families to put their kids together in groups of four and choose a house for activities. Two counselors will meet them at the house, and the day will include lessons in games such as basketball and cooking. Everyone will be wearing masks and will stay in their groups for the duration of camp. In July, Stein hopes to take groups of eight on outdoor field trips that include hiking and mountain biking.

Other camps are moving online.

Roundup River Ranch in Gypsum, provides children with serious illnesses opportunities to try new things such as archery and horseback riding. This year, groups of kids will have dance parties and scavenger hunts over Zoom. For families who don’t want to participate online, Roundup will send them a box activities they can enjoy at home, executive director Sterling Leija said.

“We’re excited to try something new,” Leija said. “We believe that our kids need us now more than ever. People were not built to socially isolate. We need connection and community, and camp provides that.”

Ajax Adventure Camp in Aspen plans to open in June with day camps and new rules about group sizes and how campers will interact. “No high fives this summer, but Ajax foot-fives are the new high five!” its website says.

Children need camps more than ever, Danny Hundert, Ajax’s founder, said.

“They’ve been cooped up all spring,” Hundert said. “If we can let them be a kid, we’ve done a great service to them in a time they might not have had that opportunity.”

Ajax created a fund for children of healthcare workers so they can attend camp for however long they need to this summer. Parents also can purchase a punch pass with a set number of days, and the pass will stay valid until all the days are used, even if it takes years, Hundert said.

“We’re trying to be as flexible as possible,” he said.

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The uncertainty has forced parents to get creative.

Millhouser ordered a swimming pool for the backyard, bought a slip-and-slide, and most importantly — at least according to her daughters — adopted a papillon puppy they named Cosette.

“They said it’s the best thing that’s ever happened,” she said.

With many camps already canceled, Dianne Myles, mother to 17-year-old son, DJ and 16-year-old daughter, TT, is putting her daughter to work in her office at Dope Mom Life, a creative content agency that specializes in video production, and she’s hoping the My Brother’s Keeper mentoring program is permitted by the governor’s orders to work with her son. For her, summer camps no longer are necessary options for child care. She just wants her children to be busy, keeping their minds and bodies active and being engaged in their community.

“We’re all trying to figure out what our kids should be doing this summer, which means we’re getting creative,” Myles said.

Myles organized a book challenge, inviting friends to join her family in reading books and writing essays. Her son will start with “The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy,” and her daughter will read “The Untethered Soul.” The family also has a summer fitness challenge, something Myles assigned because she wants to lose weight.

“It’s not the freshman 20 but I’m calling it the quarantine 20,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

For Lakisha Gentry, a Denver mother of four who works full-time for a credit union, the governor’s orders can’t come soon enough. Already, a number of camps she relied on in the past have announced they will close. She hopes the YMCA will be able to provide enrichment programs in some form.

“They need to keep their minds busy during the summer and not just sit at home playing games all day,” Gentry said. “Right now, I don’t know what we’re going to do. I’m going to have to find something.”



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