On a mild, sunny, late February day in North Asheville, small groups of children hurl basketballs toward a net, kick soccer balls down a field and pump legs vigorously on swings. They’re scattered about the outdoor campus of the YMCA of Western North Carolina’s Youth Services Center on Beaverdam Road.
Inside the multistory building, a converted former residence, kids ranging in age from kindergarten through sixth grade sit two to a 6-foot table or at small individual desks. All wear headphones and are focused on personal screens, through which they attend class and participate in lessons from their various schools. Everyone is masked, whether indoors or out.
Is this unusual setup a school or a camp? Both, says Amy Deter, associate executive director, Beaverdam and North District. “This is school in a camp setting,” she explains. “It’s school camp.”
Pre-COVID, 15 full-time youth service staff worked from offices in the building, which also served as a site for one of the after-school programs the Y operates in Buncombe and McDowell counties and at the UNC Asheville Kellogg Center in Henderson County. These venues also hosted the Y’s summer day camps.
When schools closed in mid-March last year, the Y began offering emergency child care for essential workers 7 a.m.-6 p.m. at the Beaverdam location and in one school per district served.
“I’ve been with the Y for 10 years and never experienced anything like this,” says Deter. “We’ve had to go back to the drawing board again and again to help our families and kids get what they need.”
Overseeing that drawing board is Will Deter, the organization’s senior operations director for youth safety and regulatory compliance. To establish protocols for the local programs, he must navigate an endless stream of information and data from both the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those efforts appear to be bearing fruit. A Duke University study of 54 YMCA camps in six central North Carolina counties from March through August 2020 found just 19 cases of symptomatic disease among 6,830 children and staff. And only two of those cases could be traced to campers possibly passing infections to others at camp.
This came as no surprise to Stephen Abel, digital marketing and communications coordinator for the YMCA of WNC. Locally, he points out, “There have been zero COVID exposures at the Y’s child care sites. There have been cases where an individual tested positive due to exposure elsewhere, but the Y’s health and safety protocols have prevented transmission of COVID in our programs.” Across all sites, the YMCA WNC served over 1,600 kids between March and September of last year, says Abel, including both emergency care and summer camp.
The latter program started on May 18. “It was a little early, but we felt ready, and we wanted to be here for those families who had been at home for two months,” notes Amy Deter.
Normally, Y facilities in the region offer four types of weeklong day camps: Discovery, Explorer, Adventure and CILT (Counselors in Leadership Training); last year, the number of sites was reduced and programs were adapted to meet pandemic guidelines.
The Beaverdam site hosts Explorer, Adventure and CILT camps. The same safety protocols were followed as for child care — temperature and health checks, distancing and mask wearing — and except for bathroom breaks and severe weather, all activities were held outside. Field trips were canceled, but Amy Deter says they substituted walkable adventures.
And though enrollment was down a bit, she considers Camp 2020 a success. “The kids got outside and away from screens, it gave parents a break, and we had no positive cases.” The Y will again be offering summer day camps this year, though apart from Beaverdam and the Kellogg Center, the locations have not yet been finalized.
Inside the box
The YMCA isn’t the only summer camp provider that was forced to reinvent the wheel last year. Asheville Parks and Recreation, for example, canceled its programs altogether. (The department is bringing back a modified, downsized program this year.)
And Eli Strull, curator of education and guest experience at the WNC Nature Center, says his organization replaced its 2020 in-person camps with a Camp in a Box program. “People could pick up a box and work on camp-related activities connected to the Nature Center on their own time,” he explains. “We got a lot of boxes out there and it went very well.”
This year, the Nature Center plans to offer in-person camps with reduced group sizes, following all health regulations and doing as much as possible outdoors.
The North Carolina Arboretum also suspended its popular Discovery Camp for rising second through seventh graders in 2020, says Jonathan Marchal, director of education. Instead, the facility offered family camps and allowed participants to determine who was in their household. “They signed up for a week and came out for four hours an afternoon to do programming,” he explains. “For some families, it was their vacation.”
In October, the arboretum introduced the Outdoor Adventure Kids program for children ages 6-9. Participants were dropped off one to three times a week to enjoy four hours of outdoor programming. “It almost made me cry to see kids jumping in leaf piles in the woods,” he recalls.
OAK will resume in April and will transition to the return of Discovery Camp beginning in June. “It will be a lot like our OAK program,” notes Marchal. “We will not be using our Eco Lab classrooms but will be entirely outdoors. Rather than 20 kids, we will reduce groups to eight kids and two staff, and of course, masks will be required.”
Tuxedo Smedley started his job as camp director for the Asheville Jewish Community Center in November 2019. He was so excited to be planning summer camp year-round that he opened registration for the 2020 sessions of Camp Ruach and Camp Tikvah (for children with autism) a month early. “Then COVID hit, and I didn’t know if my job had a point anymore,” he confesses.
In late April, the JCC decided to forge ahead with some form of in-person camp, starting practically from scratch. “As guidelines continued to change, we just kept rolling with the punches,” Smedley recalls. “We lowered group sizes, hired more staff, eliminated our volunteers and Leaders in Training program, changed the autism inclusion program and dropped field trips.”
Many of those adaptations will remain in place for 2021, and as he did last year, Smedley says he’ll make adjustments as needed.
Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide whether they feel comfortable sending their kids to either day care or camp.
Amanda Newsome says she and her husband, Shawn, could not be more grateful for the way the Y’s Beaverdam programs have accommodated their two boys. Evan, who is 10, has been in the after-school and camp programs since kindergarten, and 6-year-old Logan started camp last summer. Both boys have been attending virtual school since August.
“I was diagnosed with MS and am on immunosuppressants, so we are very vigilant,” says Newsome, a customer success manager for MedBill. “People ask me if I’m afraid of the risk, and I am not: The Y is so careful I have no fears. My energy level is low, but my boys get the chance to run around, play in the woods, be creative. We would not be OK without this.”
Theresa Turchin, a relocation specialist with Beverly-Hanks, Realtors, says that while her 12-year-old son has always done after-school and day camps — including through the YMCA — COVID risks have flipped their usual script. “Normally his summer would have been planned out by March,” she says. “But my husband is 66 and I’m 56, and until we are vaccinated, we’re going to wait and see.”
Last fall, Leslee Fontaine spent six weeks attending virtual real estate school from the relative quiet and privacy of a walk-in closet in the residence the stay-at-home mom shares with her husband and four children. To make time for her new job with Beverly-Hanks, she plans to enroll her kids — ages 3-10 — in day camps attuned to their individual interests and her own preferences. “I am not asking what the safety protocols are,” she notes. “If a place is open, I’m OK with whatever they’re doing, though if masks are required, especially outdoors, I will seek out other options where they are not. I am totally fine with the risks.”
Camp directors recognize that every family deals with those risks and concerns differently. “Some parents would rather not send their kids to programs where they have to wear masks 100% of the time, and I get that,” says Marchal. “The Arboretum made a decision, as an entity of the university system, that the safety-first approach is the right course for us.”
Keeping it real
Still, none of these providers wants to lose sight of how the children in their care are actually experiencing those programs. “I knew we could do camp safely but I didn’t know if kids would feel like it was camp,” says Smedley. “The end of the first week, I asked a girl who’d been coming for several years how it compared to previous summers. She said, ‘It’s camp,’ as if the answer was obvious. It was the biggest compliment I could have asked for: Things are different, but camp is still camp.”
Editor’s note: This story has been changed from the version that ran in our print issue of March 17 to reflect a corrected spelling of Amy Deter’s name.