Maeve Molina, Executive Features Editor

Since I was in 7th grade, every summer, I would take a bus filled with kids from my age all the way down to six-year-olds to Camp MacLean in Burlington, Wis. The stuffy coach bus filled with the sounds of excited children, tired teens and the occasional adult telling everyone else to calm down. The hour-long ride was hardly interesting; there was never anything fun to look at outside the widows, aside from the cow or horse you’d see every few towns. But once I saw the wooden arch and the hanging sign of Camp MacLean, I knew I was about to have the best time of my life. 

Summer camp, a Disney Channel summer experience like the ones in the corny kids shows, is real, believe it or not. The whole idea of sleeping in a cabin with strangers and sharing a bathroom with every girl there is an experience that I’m sure every kid dreams of. 

But in all seriousness, my best summers were spent on the rock wall, zip lines, kayaks and, yes, communal bathrooms in the “middle of nowhere” YMCA summer camp. It is true what the corny shows say; camp really is a home away from home.  

My sophomore year, I was hired as a junior counselor at Camp MacLean, which has been my dream ever since my first year at camp. I wanted to be the cool counselor — the one who showed the campers what an amazing summer they would have. I wanted to be the counselor that makes kids come back to camp. I wanted to watch those little kids have a summer they would remember for the rest of their life.

 I had been hired and was waiting to get my pack list for the upcoming trip, but like everyone else’s summer plans last year, it was cut short before it even started. 

Camp MacLean announced that its gates would be closed for the summer of 2020. The moment I received the email that was basically firing me from my dream summer job, it felt like COVID-19 had taken everything from me. It felt like the world fell down upon me and said “Screw you; no fun summer for you.” 

COVID-19 shut down 62% of camps all across the country during the iconic summer of 2020; now, a year later with summer approaching, summer camps are once again starting to get prepped for the sounds of young children and teens coming through the wooden gates and having the summer of their lives. Yet the question remains: how will this summer be compared to the last? Since our life is not yet back to our normal, how can camps go back to being what they were?

Summer camp is a big deal. Not only to the campers, but to the counselors, administrators and the camp itself. It was devastating when the camps shut down. The closure left campers and staff disappointed, and it was predicted that the industry took a $16 billion revenue  hit. Many camps lost all the revenue from camp registration, special trips and additional merchandise sales. 

Like schools, opening summer camps back up required lots of planning and setting up. CDC guidelines include a section about summer camps and how they can operate while being safe. Like in other public spaces, all campers, staff and visitors in camp will have to wear masks at all times with exceptions for certain people with approved medical reasons. Exceptions are also made for certain settings or activities, including eating, swimming or sleeping

Many camps will also be cohorting their campers. These cohorts, or “pods,” are groups of campers and staff that stay together throughout the day. This will minimize exposure to other people at camp. Campers and staff will be assigned to a specific cabin group and unit. Camp MacLean is also restricting the mixing between their cabin groups; the campers will take part in activities, like rock climbing, arts and crafts and archery only with members of their assigned cabin group. This is different from previous years where campers would be able to do these activities with any camper from any cabin. 

Prior to coming into camp or even onto the busses to camp, campers attending Camp MacLean, and other summer camps, will have to complete a self-assessment. This assessment will ask if the camper has experienced any COVID-19 symptoms or has the virus currently. There will also be daily health checks, in addition to the ones that were already taken in previous years. If any camper is found to have contracted the virus, they will be sent home. 

Krysti Vanoverbeke, one of Camp MacLean’s directors, was unable to say much about the planning or reopening of the camp to the public at this time but did not hesitate to share her excitement about the campers returning and knows they are excited to come back .

Last summer, a week into counseling, current sophomore Neomi Patyk, a camp counselor/volunteer at Silver Birch, Langlade County, Wis., was sent home due to COVID-19 shutting everything down. Patyk, sad and disappointed, grieved with the loss of her normally camp-filled summer. Yet, after patiently waiting a year, she is nothing but ecstatic to be going back to summer camp. 

With COVID-19 and all the new safety precautions, it is completely understandable to think some counselors may not return to summer camp, but Patyk had a different mindset.

“I wasn’t nervous about coming back to … [sleepaway camp;] I knew they were taking safety measures,” said Patyk. “I am kinda just happy to go and experience it once again after so long.” 

In addition, the thought of camp not being the same has always been on people’s minds. Some activities won’t be the same due to having to social distance the campers and no longer being able to mix with other cabins, which limits the campers’ ability to make friends. But Patyk is hopeful that the kids will be OK and that they will hype camp up to what it has always been: the best summer of their lives. 

Yes, summer camp is the place where kids go to get eaten alive by bugs, get cuts and bruises from walking in the woods and get sprayed in the eyes with a lovely mixture of sunscreen and bug spray. Still, camp is the place where I personally have met forever friends, made unforgettable memories and have grown into the person I am today. 

COVID-19 did shake the summer camp industry and the annual campers to the core, but Camp MacLean, Silver Birch and so many special camps are always going to be there. And all of the gates are opening back up soon for campers and staff. Soon, campers will all be around the campfire singing cheesy songs that will be stuck in their heads for months to come, and they will finally be back at their home away from home.