It is with profound sadness and deep regret that in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the board of directors of Nature Camp has reluctantly decided to suspend our on-site sessions for the summer of 2020.
This was not a decision that any of us wanted to make, and we did so only after careful thought and full consideration of our present circumstances, the landscape we will likely face in the next three months, and the feasibility of operating camp under the continued threat of coronavirus. We did so as well with full recognition of the impact that this news will have on the more than 300 campers who have been eagerly anticipating their summer at Nature Camp and the chance to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy during these unprecedented and uncertain times. But we concluded that we could not both take reasonable and necessary precautions to maximally ensure the safety of our participants—campers and staff, plus their families—and continue to provide the kind of experience that those familiar with Nature Camp have come to expect.
For the past several weeks, as we have weighed our options, participated in discussions with other camp professionals, and received and processed information from other trusted sources, our thinking has been guided by three fundamental questions:
(1) Would it be possible to operate Nature Camp this summer?
(2) Would it be practical to do so?
(3) Would it be prudent?
In this framework, possibility refers to conditions beyond Nature Camp’s control: specifically, the easing of restrictions by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the issuing of operating permits by the Virginia Department of Health. Under phase 1 easing of temporary restrictions which the governor announced and implemented last week, overnight summer camps are ordered to remain closed. It is unclear whether camps will be permitted to operate under planned phase 2 or 3 or when those subsequent phases may begin, although earlier statements by the governor indicated that each phase may last two to three weeks. The Health Department appears to be following the governor’s directives in issuing guidance to businesses under its jurisdiction, and to date Nature Camp had not yet received operating permits for 2020 from our local Health Department. Thus, while it may be that summer camps will be permitted to begin operations by mid to late June, there is no guarantee that this will be the case, and we do not know when that decision will be made.
Beyond the issue of possibility is the question of practicality. Since late April Nature Camp has been anxiously awaiting the release of relevant guidelines and recommendations for the operation of summer camps from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Camp Association (ACA). Finally published late last week and over the weekend, these guidelines address a host of best practices for camps to follow to minimize the risks of introducing coronavirus into the camp environment and of spreading it among the population of campers and staff. They include recommendations for:
- screening participants before arriving at camp and monitoring their health status throughout their status,
- increased frequency and intensity of cleaning camp facilities,
- limits on the size of groups within which social interactions may safely occur, and
- maintaining safe physical distance, especially during indoor activities such as meals, evening programs, and sleeping.
While some of these measures would not be difficult to implement at Nature Camp, the limitation on group size and the need to maintain physical distance in particular would reduce our total capacity, likely prevent all participants in a session from fully interacting with one another, and fundamentally change the camp experience for everyone.
(While ACA has no regulatory authority, the field guide has been shared with health departments in every state, and it is not unreasonable to think that it may inform any regulations which the Virginia Department of Health will issue for summer camps. Moreover, this organization sets the industry standard for best practices for camps, and its recommendations were developed with the input of numerous health and medical professionals.)
Finally there is the question of prudence, which is the most difficult and subjective issue to address. While we sincerely believe that the likelihood is exceedingly small that any camper or staff member would contract coronavirus while at Nature Camp and subsequently take it home, the absence of readily available, reliable, rapid tests and the fact that infected individuals may remain asymptomatic mean that this risk is simply unknown and unquantifiable, and hence it is one that we cannot afford to assume—for the sake of our entire population.
We considered delaying the start of our camping season until the middle of July and shortening each session to one week, but we have no reason to believe that CDC and ACA recommendations would be relaxed or that the pandemic and the associated risk will have abated significantly by then.
We can only imagine how devastating this news will be to our campers, and we know that by taking this action we are taking away what for many is the highlight of their year. We are heartbroken for them and we grieve with them for the experience they will miss this summer, particularly after a spring during which so many other aspects of their lives have been put on hold or turned upside down.
We are also exploring ways to reach out and remain connected to our community of campers this summer, to provide opportunities to continue to engage with and teach and learn from each other, and to maintain the traditions that sustain camp. In the weeks ahead, our phenomenal staff (along with some dedicated alumni volunteers) plan to develop content and launch programs online, and while we recognize that Nature Camp in the virtual realm will not substitute for the on-site experience, we hope that many campers will consider joining us.
In addition please stay tuned later this week for details regarding Nature Camp’s refund policy in light of this unprecedented situation. To those organizations who have already made partial or full tuition payments for campers this year, we will present you with a range of options for what to do with those funds.
It has been said during these difficult times that “we are all in the same boat.” But we have also heard it said (more accurately and appropriately, we believe) instead that “we are all on the same ocean, but each in a different boat,” for we are all dealing with different sets of circumstances and challenges. We know that some of you reading this may have contracted coronavirus yourselves, and others may have lost family members or friends to this awful disease. On behalf of the entire Nature Camp family, we offer you our sincere condolences for any loss you may have experienced, but we also hope that the vast majority of you and your families are and will continue to be well.
We will get through this crisis, and Nature Camp will survive. We are poised to withstand this challenge, and our community of campers, parents, staff, alumni, and other supporters is incredibly loyal, generous, and dedicated. We anticipate that we will be able to offer a full schedule of sessions in 2021, and we look forward to the day when we can welcome back our campers and staff (and welcome some for the first time) to our special valley for more transformative experiences and unforgettable memories.
2 April 2020
As the news seems to grow more somber by the day, our collective hearts go out to all members of the Nature Camp family who are facing anxiety these days and who are struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that your health is and will remain strong.
In light of Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home executive order, which is currently scheduled to last until June 10, Nature Camp is reexamining our plans and schedule for the summer. At the moment it appears that we may not be able to begin First Session on June 14 as we had been hoping. The board of directors and I are exploring a range of options, and we ask your forbearance and patience as we work through those over the next couple of weeks. We hope to be able to provide more concrete information before the end of April, by which time the progress of the pandemic and the prognosis for the future should become clearer. We remain committed to doing everything we can to hold camp this summer, although we don’t know just what that will look like, but we will not do so unless we can be confident that we can keep campers, staff, and their families safe.
If Nature Camp is forced to close this summer because of coronavirus, we will offer full refunds of all monies paid for this year’s sessions. We do ask that if you have a camper or campers registered for this summer, you please suspend payments at this time until further notice.
If there is a silver lining in this crisis, I think that it has offered us an opportunity to reconsider how we connect with each other in community—not simply the medium or method of connection, but the message as well. I am still navigating with a prolonged sense of unease and bewilderment this new landscape, but I am also excited to see the new directions that we might be able to follow. Look for more communications from Nature Camp in the days and weeks ahead, with more opportunities to connect with and learn from one another.
I am confident that Nature Camp will emerge from this crisis a strong, vibrant, and viable organization, one that will continue to seek to fulfill our mission of fostering environmental awareness, engaging both youth and adults in exploring the natural world, inspiring a life-long love of learning, and building and sustaining a community of stewards of the Earth. We have a phenomenally generous and supportive base of alumni, parents, campers, staff, and friends, and we are well poised to withstand this storm and even more firmly committed to providing people young and old with life-changing experiences that expand appreciation of and wonder about nature.
18 March 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic caused by a novel strain of the coronavirus continues to spread across Virginia and the United States, we wish to inform you about plans and precautions that Nature Camp is taking. We have read and will continue to monitor information and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Heath Organization, and the American Camp Association, as well as our local Health Department, insurance company, and networks of other camp professionals. In particular, we will heed recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health for holding camp this summer.
At this time we plan to operate Nature Camp as scheduled this summer. We will continually reassess the situation throughout the spring and maintain regular communications with you, Given the rapidity with which circumstances are changing and the uncertainty as to just what the coming weeks and months will bring, a final decision about whether to hold camp this summer will likely not be made until late May or very early June.
We are reviewing and reexamining our procedures for opening days of sessions, our standard cleaning protocols, and our health and safety policies and will keep you updated on any changes that will affect you and your campers this summer. We will soon be creating a special page on our website (www.naturecamp.net) where all future updates will be posted, and we will continue to disseminate information through e-mail and Facebook.
Although Nature Camp is an educational camp that seeks to promote greater appreciation for the natural world and a lifelong love of learning, our foremost responsibility will always be the safety and welfare of our participants, and we are humbled and grateful for the trust you have placed in us to take care of your campers. Nature Camp will not operate unless we can be confident that we can maintain a safe and healthy environment for our campers, staff, and visitors.
Be well, and we fervently hope to see you this summer.