Summer usually is filled with squeals of delight, a stampede of running feet and gasps of wonder as, this late into June, camps across the region typically are in full swing.
But this year is different, and the creative outlets have had to become even more creative. And it’s all because of COVID-19.
Limitations on gatherings, requirements for how to manage groups and extensive safety practices have caused those who organize and produce summer camps to be able to do things differently and not give up.
Some have gone to virtual programs to limit access to their facilities, but Piedmont Arts in Martinsville actually decided to go forward with an in-person session — although it was quite different from the usual.
“When the governor [Ralph Northam] moved the commonwealth into Phase Two, and after much deliberation, we decided to have in-person camps,” Executive Director Heidi Pinkston said. “We were not sure we were going to be able to have the camps until the last minute. They filled up very quickly.
“Piedmont Arts wants to reopen in a slow, safe way and make sure all visitors, campers and their parents are comfortable. The campers were excited and did not have any problems with the new protocols – masks, social distancing. The parents were also excited. It gave a small sense of normalcy and showed that we are moving forward cautiously.”
Piedmont Arts’ staff limited the number of campers from a typical 15 per class to six, planned as many activities outside as possible and limited points of touch. Staff also sanitized indoor spaces each day after camp. They made sure the camp went on as scheduled.
The mere thought of not having a summer camp didn’t sit well with Spencer-Penn Centre Executive Director Susan Sabin, who had instructed camps long before she assumed the facility’s leadership role.
“Spencer-Penn has been a hub of educational and cultural events since it was built in the 1920s,” Sabin said. “We have so many resources that the thought of not supporting our youth in their growth and learning at a time when so much of their world has turned upside down just wasn’t an option for me.”
Sabin tirelessly contacted instructors to gauge the interest of offering summer camp in a modern format, which would allow for physical distancing while still giving kids a chance to learn a new skill in a dynamic way.
Together, Sabin and a group of instructors created an idea for a virtual camp. She said she checked with other local facilities offering summer camps to ensure there wouldn’t be any overlap in programs.
“If we can all work together to fill in the gaps, we all will come out stronger and that’s obviously what we’ve tried to do,” Sabin said.
Providing the tools
Sabin didn’t let the limitations of what traditionally would and would not be thought of as an online course stop her. Instead, she grasped the opportunity to implement new and creative ideas.
“Classes are now an hour instead of three, which means we can make a class out of something we may not have been able to do before. It also means that sometimes we have to get creative with what they have at home and prepare enough supplies that anything they may not have can be picked up from the center,” Sabin said. “This has meant that we are also increasing our supply costs to provide each student with their own items, but we have broken the classes down so that the students are basically just paying for their supplies.”
For example, the Spencer-Penn Centre’s acrylic painting class provides students with all of the tools they need to complete a piece of art. Each child receives full-sized paints and other supplies, allowing them to continue creating even after the class ends.
“It seems like a great way to encourage students to keep using what they’ve learned and continue to grow their new abilities,” Sabin said.
Even though it’s not the same as an in-person class, the center came through for the local kids this summer.
“I certainly miss having the students in the building right now, but I’m excited that we are able to offer some virtual learning opportunities – and we are working on some ideas to make up for this once we are fully able to open again,” Sabin said.
Julie Walters Steele, director of Reynolds Homestead in Critz, noted that the restrictions brought about by the pandemic in the summer months were particularly difficult because that’s usually a bustling time at Rock Spring Plantation.
She said she quickly got to work asking those interested in teaching summer classes what they thought about offering the courses online.
“We had instructors who were willing to develop classes virtually, and we have students that are registering,” Walters Steele said.
Walters Steele noted that the online classes aren’t only geared toward children. Scheduled through the end of July, there’s a virtual art show, virtual art camp concentrating on texture, a virtual girls’ leadership camp and more.
“We’ve been doing a lot of virtual classes,” Walters Steele said. “It’s one way we can keep our community engaged.”
The half-dozen kids at Piedmont Arts were more traditional. They made crafts, created artwork and drew inspiration from the galleries and famous artists.
But not everything was normal. With the staff and the students wearing colorful, kid-friendly face coverings provided by the Uptown Rotary Club and keeping 6 feet away from others when possible, Meritha Rucker, summer art camp instructor, took the safety precautions seriously.
“Students are encouraged to wash and sanitize their hands after each activity and tables are sanitized between each activity as well,” Rucker said. “All materials are sanitized after each use.”
She said with the safety measurements in place students who had finished their school years in isolation were eager to work with each other.
“Creativity thrives when students are able to work together and physically create alongside each other. It is something that is not easily replaced through a virtual realm. Having a small group is beneficial as students can receive any help and all the materials they need to create the projects,” Rucker said.
“I think one of the highlights so far has been our paintings of a nightscape of Philpott Lake and tie-dyed bandanas. With the smaller group, every student was able to follow along and use individual materials with minimal distractions and created some beautiful pieces of art. They have learned new techniques and skills that they can carry with them through the rest of their life.”
Piedmont Arts’s staff did scrap plans to host the usual camp-ending art show displaying the campers’ work to friends and family members.
“We chose not to do a closing reception due to restrictions and precautions, but with the smaller group, students have been consistently giving one another feedback and encouragement throughout art camp. We have done gallery walks during class, so students can see what others are creating and when parents come to pick up their children there is always a show and tell so each student can show off their creations,” Rucker said.
“Seeing one’s art in a gallery setting does build a sense of confidence and encourages individuals to continue creating. I am confident the students’ time in art camp will inspire them to continue producing amazing artwork.”
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