As the region lurches into first the yellow and then the green phases of the governor’s post-pandemic reopening plan, the Schuylkill Center will welcome a group of summer campers to our annual camp this Monday, June 29, easily the most interesting camp in our 30+ years of offering this program. Though we are starting camp late - camp was supposed to have begun two weeks ago on June 15 - we are moving ahead, even though camp will be radically altered to protect our children.

Every morning, children will have their temperatures checked upon arrival by staff wearing PPEs, then will be guided to their small groups for the day by a counselor, as parents will not be allowed to come near campers. (And campers with a fever will of course be sent home.) Our various groups of kids will be spread across our property, and will not mix or mingle with each other. For their safety, each group will stay within its own “bubble,” and with its own staff. And we will spend even more of the day outdoors than we even did before this summer - and if a thunderstorm threatens, our groups will retreat into separate rooms where no other group ever goes, and that room is thoroughly cleaned afterward.

In addition, we will partition our Visitor Center so campers will not come across visitors coming to our nature center; instead, campers will use their own restricted entrance, and visitors use the front door. Visitors and campers will even have different bathrooms.

Our oldest campers used to go off on what are called Adventure Treks, cool trips to great places like Assateague Island where those wild ponies famously live. Not this summer. Our Adventure Trekkers will not even camp out together under the stars this summer, but instead will engage in day trips as soon as we are allowed to take our kids in vans - which is not in the yellow phase.

And our camp counselors will all be wearing masks during the day, and trying to keep as many kids as possible wearing masks during portions of the day.

Big thanks to the Schuylkill Center’s staff for wading through mountains of data and information about childcare during COVID, distilling text from the CDC, the state, and the city into manageable protocols for this summer. They did astonishing work in remarkably short time.

I also need to acknowledge that a portion of our parents opted out of camp this summer, which is perfectly understandable. Still, we decided that the benefits of children being outside at this unique moment outweigh the risks, and we are tightly managing the risks.

Separately, our front gate had been closed during much of the pandemic, as we had no staff here to close the gates at day’s end. As the pandemic winds down, we have begun reopening the center as well, and now open the gates in the morning and close them at day’s end at 5:00. People have been visiting our forests and trails by parking in the satellite lot on Hagy’s Mill Road, accessing our trails from there. You can now park in our main entrance, as long as you leave by five. Our driveway will remain closed on weekends until the Visitor Center opens.

Our team is now working hard on what a reopened Visitor Center looks like-- with plastic guards protecting our receptionist from the public, with the requirement that masks be worn, with a heightened cleaning regime, and much more. We have decided we will not reopen the Visitor Center to the public until we are in the green phase, which seems to be coming soon.

We are also deciding how to make our workspace safe for our staff, as many staffers share rooms where practicing the necessary physical distancing is not possible. And our staff is being asked to work from home to minimize contact with both visitors and campers.

While all of our peers across the region have modified their summer camps to adjust to the pandemic, many have folded their tents up and decided to not even try. We understand that. But we also know our children have been inside for a very long time now, visiting classrooms via Zoom, watching too much Netflix and Disney+, not enjoying this weirdly beautiful spring.

Believing in the power of the outdoors and the healing ability of nature, we are pushing ahead, albeit with a highly modified structure that meets the state’s, the city’s, and even federal guidelines, and will be welcoming our first guests since Friday, March 13th, when we - and so much of the region - closed. It will be a sweet moment.

Again, thanks to our staff for working through so many details, and to our camp counselors who will be guiding our children this summer.

We’ll let you know as soon as the Visitor Center opens so you can visit too.

Mike Weilbacher is Executive Director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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