Summer Camp Guide: Central Ohio Programs Welcome Kids While Taking Pandemic Precautions

After many cancellations last year, camps are making a comeback. Expect to find in-person and virtual offerings as well as enhanced safety measures.

Heather Lofy
Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland is offering multiple camps throughout the summer that take place largely outdoors.

With the world changing by day by day, it’s hard to look ahead to next week, let alone summer. With current pandemic restrictions, is your children’s favorite camp still hosting in-person programming? And if so, would you be comfortable sending them? These questions are top of mind for many parents even months before camp season begins.

Last summer, the pandemic was still so new that many organizations didn’t have time to pivot their camp offerings, so many were canceled. The camps that did remain open had to follow new protocols and slash enrollment.

Dan Reynolds, volunteer chair of the American Camp Association’s Local Council of Leaders for Ohio, says the ACA worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop guidelines. “Local volunteers worked with the state on the Responsible RestartOhio program,” Reynolds says. “Generally, the guidelines focused on things you saw in child care, too: operating in small groups, staying within your cohorts and making sure there were supplies for disinfecting.”

This summer, many of these guidelines will remain in place. Organizations such as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium are planning to host camps after canceling last year. Plans are to modify programs to make them feel as traditional as possible.

“Group sizes are almost half the size of what they were in the past,” says Brandon Good, the zoo’s conservation and education manager. “That was determined by the amount of space we have. We’ll have 16 campers in each of our groups, when traditionally it is 28. We benefit from having spaces that are large.”

Other pandemic protocols will include masks and daily temperature checks. “We’re hopeful that we will see our camps fill,” Good says. “Especially since we think we’ve put enough safety procedures in place, but can still provide a fun educational experience.”

Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland canceled its resident camps in 2020 and is doing the same for 2021. Katie Poole, girl experience director for GSOH, says that they often host international staff for the resident camps, and uncertainties related to travel factored into the decision. “Thinking about what it would take to develop a resident camp and the risks, we decided to take the ways we served girls last year and try and repeat those,” Poole says. “We’ll put them on even better in ways we have learned throughout the year.”

GSOH will move forward with volunteer-run day camps and is in the process of training volunteers and directors. “We’re being really upfront that things will continue to change over the next few months,” Poole says. “Day camps will get extra cleaning supplies. Every camp will be slightly different for capacities since we use so many different properties. We know a lot of families aren’t comfortable sending their girls, and that’s absolutely OK. We want everyone to make the best decision for them and meet people where they are.”

A repeat offering from last year is Camp in a Box, where families can customize a package sent to their home with activities like tie-dyeing and friendship bracelets. The Girl Scouts also hosted virtual programming on Facebook Live, which Poole says they plan to continue as well.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium offers a variety of summer camps for toddlers through middle schoolers.

Some groups are still unsure what summer might bring. Otterbein University hosts various camps each year, including equine, music and STEM-focused experiences. The university is also the host site for local camps put on by other organizations. Matthew D’Oyly, Otterbein’s director of events and conferences, says the university wants to provide in-person experiences because they are valuable for kids and their development. Officials are still looking for the safest approach to do so while following government guidelines. One definite pivot is Otterbein’s music camp, which is moving from residential to day camp this year, D’Oyly says.

“We’re asking a lot of questions to navigate what is the safest way forward that makes sense for us as an institution and for the parents to feel comfortable sending their kids,” D’Oyly says. “When we host a camp, that’s our responsibility.”

Jessica Stein, a Westerville mother of two, says that as she considers camps, she looks for precautions such as a lower ratio of kids to staff, adequate sanitizing supplies and mask wearing. “Since we’re in hybrid school scenario right now, I feel fairly comfortable with them being around people if they take those precautions,” Stein says. “My kids need to be active, so we’ll focus on trying to find things that keep them active and moving.”

As parents shop for summer camps, Poole advises asking as many questions as you need to feel comfortable. Regardless of the program your family chooses, camp is going to look different this year, and children need to understand that.

“Have those conversations with your kids so they know what to expect,” Poole says. “Kids have adapted so well.”