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Region's summer camps canceled or modified due to pandemic

Camps in Southeastern Connecticut are either adjusting their models or shuttering for a summer plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Separate executive orders issued by Gov. Ned Lamont, one on March 30 and one on May 18, set regulations on how camps will run. Day camps are not to begin operation until June 22 and must adhere to cleaning and safety practices, including frequent hand-washing after sneezing and before handling food, for example. In addition, children and staff have to be checked for illness, cough and temperature before entering a program.

Most consequential, though, is the limit on group sizes: There should be no more than 10 children in one space and 30 children in one facility. That forces municipalities and private camps to either change the way camp is conducted, or cancel it. All parties have expressed concern about how to choose children for each camp with new restrictions on numbers.

Waterford

Waterford reluctantly has canceled Camp DASH, a summer day camp for kids run by the Youth & Family Services department.

“With guidance from state and town leaders, as well as our chairperson, we concluded that camp would not run without significant risk,” a notice from camp directors read. “We also recognized that reducing our camp size to possibly only 30 children, based on the governor’s recommendations for day camps, could have resulted in an inequitable registration process.”

The statement acknowledges families who hope to return to work — summer day camps are especially helpful for them — noting “we are exploring options for possibly August.”

Private camps are suffering, as well. The ARC of Eastern Connecticut decided it will not be offering Camp Harkness programming this summer. Camp Harkness “is one of the few state parks in the country dedicated for exclusive use by citizens with disabilities,” according to the state Department of Developmental Services webpage. All private operators have decided to cancel day programs at the camp this summer, according to department spokesperson Krista Ostaszewski. That includes United Cerebral Palsy, a nonprofit, charitable organization for people with disabilities, and Oak Hill, which usually offers summer programs designed for people with disabilities. 

Eugene O’Neill Theater has had to alter its summer plans, as well. “We have transitioned all of our programs online and are continuing to support artists and the development of new work,” theater spokesperson Amanda Ritchie wrote in an email. “Some programs will have a public element, some will be open just to our members or our community of artists. We will not be holding any on-campus performances or events this summer.”

The Young Playwright’s Festival, for example, will now take place virtually. The National Puppetry Conference, June 8-12, also is moving online, as is the Theatermakers program and a number of other projects.

Montville

At a May 20 meeting, the Parks & Recreation Commission considered canceling the town’s summer camp, run through its Parks & Recreation Department. Commissioners decided to wait for the state to clarify guidelines before making decisions on if and how exactly to operate camp this summer. There are typically 230 kids at the town’s camp each day, so the number of campers will be significantly impacted by the state’s 30-camper-per-facility limit.

Commission Chairwoman Karen Perkins said the group plans on making camp happen. “The kids have been stuck inside, so I believe everyone would love to have a summer camp,” she said. “We need clarification on what the state meant by ‘site’ so we can determine which sites we can use.”

Norwich

The Norwich Recreation Department will open a summer day camp from June 29 to Aug. 14 for children in two age groups, following strict state COVID-19 protocols, city Recreation Director Cheryl Hancin-Preston said. The program will run in seven, one-week sessions.

A day camp for two groups of children ages 6-12 will be held at Kelly Middle School and Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet Elementary School. No more than 60 participants will be at each school, with those sections divided into groups of 30 assigned to different entrances, and those groups divided into no more than 10 children per classroom.

A third session, “Kinder Camp” for children ages 4 or 5 will be held at the city Recreation Department. Each week will have a different theme, including USA for the first week and “Wet & Wild Water Week” in August.

“We wanted to provide the service to the community,” Hancin-Preston said. “Our first thought was for essential workers to have a place for their children. And then people started calling saying people needed child care this summer.”

Norwich received a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut for camp scholarships for low-income families, offered on a sliding income scale.

Hancin-Preston thanked Norwich school officials for agreeing to open the schools for the camps. With social distancing, the only way to offer the program was to use classrooms spread out in different sections of the schools.

“Families are excited,” she said. “They’re grateful. We anticipate a lot of last-minute signups a week or two before it starts.”

Stonington

Most of the major summer camps for children in Stonington will be operating this summer.

The Naik Family branch of the Ocean Community YMCA’s accredited camp will begin June 29. YMCA President and CEO Maureen Fitzgerald said children will be grouped in “pods” of 10 that will remain together throughout the day. While swimming lessons will not be provided, there will be activities such as recreational swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking, archery and more.

Social distancing is not much of an issue at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, with its acres of woods, trails and ponds. Camp will open June 29 with two counselors assigned to 10 children, and the groups will not interact. There will be staggered drop-off and pick-up times, teenage volunteers will not be used this year and the traditional camp T-shirt will be replaced by a toolkit that contains a bandana and personal writing and drawing materials among its items. About 60 children are expected at any one time at the camp which is “100% outside” except in dangerous weather, according to camp director Pauline Gaucher.

The Stonington Community Center, a licensed and accredited day care facility, begins its summer program June 1. Executive Director Beth-Ann Stewart said the program will have 10 children assigned to the same staff members. Each child and staff member will be screened for coronavirus each day and a system has been set up for drop-off and pick-up in the center’s new vestibule. Fifty children are expected to attend camp, compared to the normal 96. 

New England Science and Sailing's camp will open on June 22 with its traditional sailing, surfing and marine science programs. There will be 60 children at any one time, about a third of its usual enrollment, and a maximum of 10 per class. NESS is looking at testing all staff members regularly throughout the summer. It will stagger start and pick-up times and not host its traditional lunch hour.

Most of Mystic Seaport’s sailing and day camps will take place as scheduled. Sailors will be in two groups of nine that will not commingle, and each camper will be assigned their own boat for the week. Each camper will be provided with a mask to use when social distancing is not possible. The museum has canceled its overnight sailing camps aboard the training vessel Joseph Conrad.

Mystic Aquarium will offer camps for children entering grades 1-6 and family camps for adult/child pairs but has reduced its offerings for wider age groups. Each camp will have its own dedicated classroom separated from the general public and a maximum of 10 campers with dedicated instructors separate from the other camps. It will not have field trips that require transportation. 

The popular Stonington Recreation Department camp is canceled this summer, a difficult decision but “the smartest and safest” according to Director of Human Services Leanne Theodore. The department will be offering scholarships to children to attend camps put on by nonprofit organizations. 

Town of Groton

Eileen Cicchese, program supervisor at Groton Parks and Recreation, said the town surveyed parents, who overwhelmingly responded that they needed camp for their children, as they rely on the Parks and Recreation programs as an essential service. Both residents and nonresidents use the camp. Many families who work in Groton take their kids to camp in Groton.

“We never considered not having it,” Cicchese said. “It was just a matter of how we were going to do it.”

The town’s day camp will open June 29 at a limited capacity, with priority given to working families who need child care, she said. The camp typically serves about 200 children, but she anticipates it will be 100 this year.

Cicchese said camp sites at Mary Morrisson and Claude Chester elementary schools have playgrounds and fields, and the intent is to be outdoors the majority of the time.

She said the town will follow protocols set by the state, including assigning children to groups of 10 with a designated space for each group and taking the temperature daily of every camper and staff member. Staff will be required to wear masks, while it will be up to each family if the children wear masks. Camp sites will have different doors for entrance and exit, she said. Each group will be assigned to a specific bathroom stall, and all the facilities will be disinfected throughout the day.

Washing hands, using hand sanitizer and social distancing are “going to be part of our daily safety routine,” she said.

While field trips are canceled, she said, virtual field trips, Zoom book readings and contactless activities are planned.

City of Groton

Parks and Recreation Director Mary Hill said the City of Groton will hold day camp starting June 29 at two sites: Washington Park and the grounds of the Marine Science Magnet High School. “We felt it was an essential need for the members of our community,” she said.

All staff will wear masks; it will be up to the families whether campers wear masks. The kids will be separated by age into groups of 10 that will be assigned to specific areas, and each group will have its own bin of supplies that staff will sanitize. Each group also will have its own designated drop-off and pick-up area. There will be designated restroom breaks so the bathrooms can be cleaned afterward.

The city is awaiting guidelines from the governor’s office, but is ready to go with thermometers, if needed, and hand sanitizer.

The camp, which last year served a total of 327 kids, will have limited capacity. The city was approved to have 125 kids at Washington Park and is seeking approval to host 85 kids on the Marine Science Magnet High School grounds.

While field trips and weekly beach days won’t happen this year, and large playground activities won’t be allowed, staff is working on ideas, such as one-on-one games of tennis and pickleball and individual arts and crafts projects.

The Shenneccossett Yacht Club Sailing School will not be held for the first summer in more than a decade, said William Gaynor, the club's director of sailing. Despite new boats and a large following in the area, the classes had to be canceled due to the pandemic: "We had to say no this year," he said. "It makes it sad for everybody."

Project Oceanology will offer only day camp and virtual camps this year. More information is available at oceanology.org/summer-camps. Safety protocols include limiting each group to a maximum of 10 campers, requiring staff members to wear masks, encouraging camp members to wear a mask or keep one with them, and screening campers and staff when they arrive.

New London

New London organizations that typically run summer camps are adjusting to state guidelines. The Drop-In Learning Center, located at St. James Episcopal Church, will have its popular summer program, which usually hosts 80 children; it already reached its capacity of 30.

Details about Camp Rotary, a program run by the school district that usually hosts programs for middle school students from June through August, were not immediately available.

The city Recreation Department announced a scaled-back summer playground program running from June 23 to Aug. 14. People can sign up at newlondonrec.com. Limited to 150 children, the program will make use of outdoor space at Bates Woods, Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School and Harbor Elementary School.

The school district is providing use of indoor space at Harbor, Nathan Hale and the STEM Magnet High School during inclement weather. Programs are limited to 30 children each and further separated into groups of 10.

There will be no bussing, and organizers do not anticipate offering swimming lessons. Further details of the program can be found on New London Recreation’s Facebook page.

Old Lyme & East Lyme

Friday news releases from East Lyme and Old Lyme’s Parks and Recreation Departments stated that they would not be running summer camp programs.

“This decision does not come easily as this summer would have marked the 40th straight year that I was either employed as a camp counselor or supervisor,” East Lyme Parks & Rec Director David Putnam wrote.

The UK Soccer Camp, scheduled for Aug. 17-21, “will be evaluated closer to the camp start date," Old Lyme Parks & Rec Director Don Bugbee wrote. “I realize that these summer camps provide opportunities for not only the recreation of the participants and (child care) for families, but for summer employment for many of our high school and college-age residents as well.”

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Joe Wojtas, Kimberly Drelich, Greg Smith and Mary Biekert contributed to this report.

s.spinella@theday.com

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