World Language Initiative Summer Camp

Scarlett Dominguez plays a game during Hannah Jacobsma’s French class in the World Language Initiative summer camp in the this file photo from last July.

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For the first time in 26 years, the Montana Outdoor Science School will not host onsite summer camps in June or most of July.

Instead, the Bozeman nonprofit will offer summer camp to-go.

Jess Haas, executive director of MOSS, said a few factors contributed to the school’s decision to cancel in-person summer camps through July 20, like its limited indoor space and the risk that comes with transporting kids for field trips, as the threat of COVID-19 persists. She said she’s been in contact with a number of local camp directors, and that the decision to open is a personal one based on individual circumstance.

MOSS staff were not going to leave campers high and dry, so they came up with a summer camp kit that kids could take home with them.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Haas said.

The nonprofit is planning to run onsite day camps later in the summer but may reevaluate as more public health information becomes available and the COVID-19 situation evolves. In the meantime, take-home kits will aim to fill the gap.

Haas said participants will receive instructions and materials for activities that will take them outside to explore. She said virtual learning wasn’t an option for MOSS, whose mission is to “inspire curiosity, awareness and understanding of nature.”

Each day of camp-at-home should be full. One day, kids might replicate animal scat patterns using oatmeal and cocoa. The next day, they might be tasked with an outdoor scavenger hunt.

“We didn’t just want this to be something that kids sit down at the kitchen table and do for just 10 minutes,” Haas said.

If and when in-person camps resume for MOSS this summer, they’ll only be day camps. The organization will not host camping or backpacking trips where kids share a tent this summer.

But even with changes and restrictions, Haas said MOSS is committed to still carrying out its mission.

“We were going to do everything in our ability and our resources to still facilitate outdoor experiences,” Haas said.

Having clear guidelines helps that process, Haas said. The Gallatin City-County Health Department put out a guide specifically for summer camps earlier this week. A letter from Health Officer Matt Kelley said the department recognizes the restrictions outlined are difficult to follow, and that they might not be followed perfectly all of the time.

“We also recognize that each program is unique and that there is no one-fits-all plan. Each camp should determine how these guidelines and recommendations will fit within their program and operations,” Kelley said in the letter.

Those restrictions include keeping group sizes under 50 when social distancing is impractical, although it’s advised that groups should be kept as small as possible. Walking and biking should be the preferred modes of transport. Sports and games should be modified to avoid touching and sharing objects. These are just a few of many guidelines.

Jamie Saitta, recreation manager for the city of Bozeman, said staff in her department will be reviewing these guidelines to help plan for their camps scheduled to begin June 15. Day-to-day operations of the camps will look quite a bit different from past years.

“Over the past few months, we have taken a very thoughtful and methodical approach to determining a plan to implement our summer day camps in a manner that protects our participant and staff’s health and safety at all times,” Saitta said.

Summer camp hours will be reduced to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., group sizes will be capped at 12 to 13 per three staff members and more robust sanitization protocols will be in place. More staff than normal were hired to help carry out these new policies.

Some of these policies could change as the summer progresses.

Saitta said the kids will be spending as much time outside as possible, but that when weather forces them inside, the recreation department has adequate space to accommodate that. It owns a number of buildings, including the Story Mill Community Center, which has capacity for 100 people and a gymnasium, and the Lindley Center.

Saitta said the recreation department had to make some difficult choices to prioritize hosting youth camps. The department cancelled preschool camp for the summer, active aging programs, spring T-ball and its annual Touch-a-Truck event.

Saitta said staff are still ironing how activities will be modified.

“We still have some work to do, but that’s what the next week is for,” Saitta said.

Sarah Peterson with nonprofit Child Care Connections has been working with a variety of child care and summer camp providers over the last few months to help them determine how best to operate during the time of COVID-19.

Peterson said the modified operations won’t only be a learning experience for providers, but also for children who will need to be social-distancing and washing hands often. It’ll be a good warm-up for when they return to school.

She said implementing all of the necessary restrictions has been taxing on providers, who are already stretched thin financially. However, many are making it work.

“The biggest thing that I’m seeing is that these providers are finding creative ways to function to follow those guidelines,” Peterson said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.