Girl Scout councils covering most of Minnesota have canceled their overnight and day camps through August, amid concerns about whether they could operate safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Making the decision to cancel camp was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve done in the 26 years I’ve worked at Girl Scouts, because girls in the out-of-doors is core to what we believe in,” said Leigh Ann Davis, CEO for the Lakes and Pines council.
Minnesota Boy Scouts councils are still evaluating plans for summer camps and are moving ahead with preparations. Kent York, director of communications for Northern Star Scouting in the Twin Cities, said they are “reviewing recently released guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health and government orders from both Minnesota and Wisconsin and will provide an update to our leaders and members on our summer operations” early in the week of May 17.
Under Minnesota’s “stay safe” order that takes effect beginning Monday, day camps are allowed, but overnight camps are not. The Girl Scouts are canceling both.
“Our day camps are run primarily by volunteers, and that’s a huge responsibility to put on our volunteer parents out there,” Davis said. That, plus the fluctuating number of people allowed to gather in one place, made planning day camps too much of a safety risk. Davis pointed out that, regardless of the pandemic, safety is the No. 1 priority for Girl Scouts.
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“We started with the assumption that maybe day camp would be safer,” said Jen Thorson, chief operating officer of the River Valley council. “But if you really dig into it, with day camp, there’s more people moving around, coming and going. And it became just as ... concerning in terms of the ability to maintain social distancing or reduce the number of people to come in contact with.”
Not to mention, added Thorson, the “group nature of camp.” Girls play, eat, and take part in activities together. That camaraderie is part of the point of camp.
“I really had to sit with [the idea of canceling camp] for a long time,” said Davis, “just sit in the sadness of it, and then go, all right, Girl Scouts is about moving on to what’s next. We know that something had to come next, and that was virtual programming.”
What does a ‘virtual’ summer camp look like?
Both of the Girl Scouts councils are planning for several weeks of virtual day camp. Girls do not need to be members of a current troop to register.
“Even though virtual camp can never replace what a camp experience is, we think we can create a really fun, unique, and meeting-the-moment experience for girls and family this summer,” said Thorson. In planning activities, both regions were mindful of creating a “day camp” experience that included learning opportunities, chances to interact with fellow scouts, and hands-on activities that campers can do away from a screen.
“The whole concept of being out-of-doors is actually being out-of-doors,” said Davis. “We’re looking at some of the basic concepts that kids expect to see at camp. So, an opening ceremony. A flag ceremony. They want to know that there’s a campfire. They want to sing songs. So we’re going to make sure that some of those really core components are also available for these virtual experiences.”
Davis said parents will receive an email beforehand with a list of household supplies that can be used for the activities. The River Valley council plans to send out a kit to campers containing supplies for activities.
Thorson said they’ve been mindful of “digital fatigue” in designing the camps. “The virtual component is to create the in-person contact and to have access to our professional staff of camp counselors,” Thorson said. “They can teach them skills; they can do some group activities with the girls, but then they do close the computer and go outside in the backyard and do non-digital activities, because we really think that’s what parents and their families are going to be looking for.”
Both leaders said they hope the new format, born out of necessity, will still be an opportunity to draw in new scouts and connect more girls with a camp experience, even if--for now-- they stay in or near their own homes to do it.