“You Can’t Roast Marshmallows on Zoom”

How one camp is thinking about this summer.

Children in life jackets canoe on a lake.
Campers canoe on a lake in Fairview, Tennessee on July 16. Reuters/Shelley Mays/the Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Lisa Handelman runs a Jewish summer camp in rural Pennsylvania called Capital Camps. Usually, around this time of year, Handelman would be getting ready to relocate for the summer, taking charge of one of the many institutions in which millions of American kids participate each year. But the coronavirus is making camp directors like Handelman nervous about their kids’ health and whether they’ll be able to stay in business. On Wednesday, Capital Camps announced that it would be canceling camp this summer, after a very tough decision-making process.

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Handelman about her coronavirus concerns, the drawbacks of bubbled or virtual camp, and the future of Capital Camps. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: So, how many kids usually go to Capital Camps each year?

Lisa Handelman: We get 800 to 1,000 kids depending on the year. This summer, we were expecting a little bit over 800.

When did you first start thinking that maybe this year will be different?

As soon as we decided to move to remote work, we knew something was going to be different. We did a trip in in the beginning of March and then the next week decided that our office should go remote. We also have a retreat center, and we started getting some cancellations of retreats around that time.

All along, I thought, OK, we can do this. And it became more and more problematic. Camp directors are really good at problem-solving. We’re really good at coming up with a zillion different strategies. Within the camping industry, I think we have collaboratively come up with every strategy of every possible way to camp. The idea of not having camp is something we’re not good at. That’s been a lot harder to get my head around.

Why do you think it is that camps are good at pivoting in this way?

I think if you have an environment where you have kids and you have counselors who are young adults, there’s a lot of what’s called “informal education,” where you have to pivot all the time. You’re outside and you have something that would be great on a sunny day and then suddenly it rains. You have kids camping or hiking out and you’re watching the weather app and making sure there’s no thunderstorm coming.

Things just go wrong. Whether it’s the weather or a counselor who has to leave, things happen and you have to adjust.

You adjust. It’s a bit like improv. You catch the ball and do something with it. I think camps are good at that. We’re used to on-the-ground shifting because that’s how we live all summer. So we’ve sort ofbeen  in that mode. We joke sometimes that camp is a marathon and you can’t do it as a sprint because there’s so much happening. The past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of decisions and pivoting happening constantly.

We’re talking in mid-May. Last week, the CDC and the American Camp Association came out with some sort of beginning guidelines for what should be happening at camp. What are they saying?

We’re waiting for them to come up with all their guidelines. Some of the first ones they came up with talk about screening, supplies you have to buy, health care, and facilities. They haven’t yet come up with the ones that say, how do you run activities? What should the pool look like? You know, the other aspects of camp.

Has there been any guidance from the state of Pennsylvania?

About a week ago, Pennsylvania declared that some regions will be able to open up and others would not. And the county we’re in was told that it was not allowed to open up, but the county felt the opposite. It talked to the governor, but the governor won. And as of last Friday, the area we are in is still considered “red.”

So you’re waiting on all of these people to make decisions. Sometimes it looks good, and then someone comes in and overrules that person.

There’s a point when you start reading these restrictions of kids wearing face masks and kids not being able to interact. And there was something the other day about how each kid would have to have their own Magic Marker and they couldn’t share a bucketful of Magic Markers. But camp is all about community. It’s all about relationships and coming together. And there was a point at which that doesn’t exist anymore, where it’s not safe to exist in that way.

Are parents asking for refunds?

A handful of parents have asked for refunds, though not as many as you would expect. Around April, we sent out a letter that said to parents: If we have to close, we will be going back to you with three choices. We’d love if you donated what you paid for camp. We’d love if you would roll over your tuition for next year. And if you need it, we will figure out a way to give you a refund. The reality is, no camp out there—and ours is not an exception—has enough sitting in the bank to give every single person every refund. That’s not how camps work. Camps start spending the money for the summer as the money comes in. So that part’s a little scary.

At the end of the day, we are going to make a decision based on safety, not finances, and we’re going to trust that our community is so strong that we’re going to get to the other side of this. Don’t ask me exactly how, but camp is just too important not to get to the other side. But it is scary.

Last week, Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner, was talking about camp and his own kids and what he would do. He had this idea that in some ways he’d rather send his children to a sleep-away camp than a day camp because you could create a bubble at a sleep-away. As a camp director, what you think about that?

It’s interesting, every time I hear people mention stuff like the bubble, they’re mentioning ideas everybody’s already thought about. We’re all thinking about the same things.

We came up with a zillion scenarios. “Camp is a bubble” was what we called one of them. It’s also true what some people have said, that you can’t have a perfect bubble. When we imagined camp as a bubble, we said, OK, we’re canceling all trips out of camp, we’re canceling visitors, the retreat’s not happening, counselors won’t leave for days off, we’re going to bring in some extra snacks. At that time, our medical director was saying this would be better than a day camp because there would be less coming and going. But the other side is also true. You can’t have a complete bubble. There are some people who are going to have to come and go. So I think, in my mind, a bubble was a level of risk that balanced and made it as safe as we thought at the time might be possible. You can limit it to a to a certain degree. And for a while that felt safe.

Sounds like you don’t think it feels safe anymore.

We’re hearing now, even within those bubbles, it should be 10 kids. If you put 10 kids in a bunk, and you do toe-to-head sleeping as was recommended, is that really going to keep them safe enough? I think there are a lot of levels of bubbles. But if we’re talking to the point where even those 10 kids can’t share Magic Markers or put their arms around one another or be pool buddies—if we can’t do those things even within our bubble, it doesn’t really matter if we can bubble everybody.

What do you think you will be able to do this summer? Are there other things you’re thinking of?

All along we’ve been talking about keeping our community connected one way or another. We’re going to continue to expand on connections virtually. I don’t think camp can be virtual, but you can stay somewhat connected.

You can’t roast a marshmallow over Zoom.

No, you cannot roast a marshmallow over a Zoom, and you can’t have these intimate conversations that happen when you’re walking from point A to point B. You can’t have those moments of connectiveness on Zoom. But you still need that. If you can’t have camp, we still need to connect. We simply just see each other.

I love that you’re thinking about it that way. And I love that you’re reserving the word camp for something very specific. Camp is the place and the experience.

Camp is the people. Camp is the connections. It’s the relationships. It’s a thousand little magical moments that you can’t predict. It’s where friendships happen. Camp is this immersive experience, and you can’t do that over Zoom.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.