Adapting to Challenges and Coming Back Strong: Camp Staffing and COVID-19

Katie Johnson
Lauren Kennedy
May 2021
Staff looking out over lake at sunrise

In normal years, camps can rely on several trends to adequately staff their programs. These include: 

  • A steady pool of returning staff, with veteran staffers often serving as mentors to younger colleagues
  • Key older staff members who can bring wisdom, experience, and temperament that younger staff may lack
  • A ready supply of international staff, who often bring unique experiences and skills in exchange for the opportunity to travel to the US

There’s every reason to expect that each of these trends could be affected in the summer of 2021. Not only will international staff potentially be unable, or unwilling, to travel, but if they do travel, disruptions to travel plans and arrival dates may occur. Uncertainty remains about whether regulations around travel will change and what might happen if international staff contract COVID-19 while at camp. 

Additionally, because last season was a wash for many camps, they may experience fewer returning staffers this season — and those who do return could be rusty in their skills or knowledge, meaning reduced opportunities for peer-based learning. 

Moreover, seasoned staff — especially those who see working at camp as part of semiretirement or a second career — may be reluctant to work if they have not yet been vaccinated. Teachers who may typically join camp staff during the summer may also be exhausted from this past year of schooling, which has not been an easy task.

So, while camps do face some additional recruitment challenges this year, the consensus appears to be that there are plenty of young people who are willing to work at camp. In fact, given the lockdowns and other restrictions young people have lived through recently, they may be more than eager for the experience that working at camp can bring. Camps will need to be careful about hiring quality candidates with a diversity of skills and strengths, not just making up numbers by hiring as many young people as possible. 

Here is how Meredith Stewart, a former camp director and current consultant at Redwoods, describes the challenge: 

If they’re struggling to bring in international staff, camps may choose to hire two young, enthusiastic, and inexperienced staff over an older, more experienced, and potentially more expensive staff member. But this isn’t the year to be relying on rookie staff. We’re going to need to have some people who know exactly what they’re doing so we can recreate a culture of safety and responsibility.

Camps will need to focus on several key areas as they tackle staffing for the upcoming summer, including: 

  • Focus on experience. Hire tried-and-true leadership staff who are committed to camp success.
  • Invest in staff. Camps may need to pay more for experienced staff; there is more value in the perspective they bring than in just hiring a warm body.
  • Adjust capacity if necessary. Because of the added cost of experienced staff, camps may need to plan for smaller teams — and fewer campers as a result. 
  • Do not underestimate workload. Even as we contemplate smaller teams or higher staffing costs, we also need to recognize that COVID-19 may bring additional pressures on a camp’s workforce. More cleaning and sanitizing must be completed. Campers and/or staff may get sick. And camps may also lose more staff to emotional health than usual.

Given the massive financial hit that many camps took in 2020, it’s not easy to contemplate the prospect of additional staff costs. Yet we also know that, in addition to the risks that are always inherent in running a camp, unique and significant risks may arise from the unprecedented year we’ve just lived through, and the challenging camp season we are about to embark on. If it’s going to be successful, we’re going to have to make sure it’s done right. 

Training in a Time-Constrained Environment 

In addition to hiring challenges, camps will also be dealing with potential disruption to their training programs — at a time when training is more important than ever. If camp season is shorter, for example, or if additional COVID-19-specific training is necessary, there may not be enough time to complete all trainings on site. Preparing campers and staff prior to camp for what they can expect, including completing some training or onboarding activities at home, may help to alleviate that burden.

Among other things, it will be important to communicate the following to staff: 

  • What to expect. Including any changes to previous years, such as COVID-19 protocols, addendum to job description, etc. 
  • What we expect of them. Staff will likely have questions about time off policies, including whether they can leave camp, what the protocols are if they can, and what activities will be allowed at camp if they are not allowed to leave. 
  • How camp has changed. The pandemic has resulted in a huge philosophical shift in programming for a number of camps. Many camps will be moving from a model in which campers leave their cabin group daily and independently choose different activities to one in which they will stay together as a cabin group for much of their camp experience. While this presents new opportunities to develop stronger relationships for campers and staff,  the new model of operation also may require some adjustment time.

Making sure you get out in front of who, exactly, is doing your training is equally important. If some training is virtual, for example, are your existing vendors set up to provide that experience — or do you need new trainers who are willing and able to adapt to virtual training? Can other local nonprofits (the YMCA, for example) provide support for skills such as lifeguarding? Remember, while virtual training may help alleviate some pressure, American Camp Association (ACA) standards require that any aquatic, first aid, or CPR/AED certification must include at least 50 percent of course time in person for “instruction, hands-on practice, and skills assessment under the direct supervision of a certified instructor from a listed certifying organization” (ACA, 2021). 

Even when you are able to rehire experienced staff and their knowledge base is intact, they may still be rusty in action. Allowing time for staff to practice both hard and soft skills will be important as they head into the summer season. 

Ultimately, the main thing to remember is that training is both more crucial and more demanding than it may have been in previous years, so budget and plan accordingly. If possible, schedule an additional time for training at a slower pace to allow for COVID-19-related content to be incorporated into all topics covered in staff training. Camps may additionally want to incorporate more training opportunities throughout the summer to keep things fresh — gradually shifting from skills practice to more coaching as the summer progresses.

None of Us Are Who We Were

The pandemic has changed us all in real and profound ways. Whether as a result of loneliness and disrupted relationships or trauma from loss or economic pressures at home, many of your staff and campers will be experiencing emotions that can impact their ability to show up as you would expect. If all of the considerations outlined in the preceding sections weren’t enough, we are also going to have to think about emotional and mental well-being. Are mental health counselors available? Who can staff talk to if they are stressed? What resources can be provided for wellness and emotional resilience? 

It’s Still Camp — And Camp Is Awesome

Let’s not forget that the summer of 2021 will be an incredible one. We have an entire generation of campers who have never needed camp more. Our work is important and life changing. By taking the appropriate steps now to make sure it is safe, we can make sure that camp is fun, transformative, and an optimal experience for both campers and staff. Given the year that we’ve all just lived through, it’s safe to say they deserve nothing less.


Before joining Redwoods, Katie served on the American Camp Association staff for eight years and was a camp director for Camp Fire Camps on the West Coast prior to that time. She can be reached via email at KJohnson@RedwoodsGroup.com

A Pennsylvania Native, Lauren Kennedy spent 13+ years in Florida working with the YMCA, focused on HR, Risk Management, and Operations for the Y, including a 68-acre camp on Lake Winona. Lauren can be reached at LKennedy@RedwoodsGroup.com.

Photo courtesy of URJ Crane Lake Camp, West Stockbridge, MA.

 


The Redwoods Group