Why We Are Opening Camp Pinnacle this Summer

John Dockendorf27 May, 2020
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The decision to open Camp Pinnacle this season has been the hardest one I’ve made in my 30 years working in youth development. The decision was made after many sleepless nights trying to figure which option was the best… out of no perfect options. It’s a decision made not from hubris, but with clear eyes and from the belief in our mission of camp as an important educational institution. We feel a sense of duty to serve our families when kids need camp the most.

Of course, safety comes first at Camp Pinnacle, which puts pressure on us camp directors to work tirelessly to mitigate the risks to the best of our ability. This summer, Pinnacle won’t exactly resemble the camp we all know and love, but we firmly believe it’ll still be the fun, growth-oriented, and community-minded experience we promise every year. We’ll still have all of our wonderfully fun activities available, and our counselors and leadership team are more excited than ever to see each of our campers.

How can we run camp safely?

We’ll be opening in partnership with the Henderson County Health Department, with permission from the state of NC, and with the support of our local government. We have (exhaustively) studied the guidance from the American Camp Association and NC Department of Health and Human Services. We have also consulted with the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor of infectious disease. We have diligently pursued the best information we could find.

At first, we were slightly daunted; could we simultaneously adhere to the guidelines while keeping Pinnacle a fun and magical place to be with friends?

We meet the CDC requirements to operate based on their decision tree. We’re already accredited with the ACA, which means we meet or exceed hundreds of exacting requirements. We’ve had countless discussions and brainstorms with our medical director (Dr. Morris at Blue Ridge Community Health), head nurse Andrea Little-Gray, and members of the health department, and we’ve run through endless “what if” scenarios to leave no stone unturned.

Camp Pinnacle has always been a cabin-based program, meaning our campers already spend the majority of time with their cabin mates. This also means that under the new guidelines, the changes we’ll have to make are far less radical than the changes other camps would have to implement.

After all this… we realized that we can meet those guidelines, and we can still make Pinnacle feel like Pinnacle.

Why not just close for the summer?

There are six of us in the Dockendorf family. We have sheltered in place, continue to wear face coverings in public, and have deep respect for the consequences of COVID-19. We know people who have gotten sick with mild symptoms, and others who have fallen extremely ill. We have friends whose relatives have died from the virus. We take COVID-19 very seriously.

But we have also seen the mental health effects that this pandemic has brought on our own kids and their friends, and we’ve reviewed disturbing data about double-digit increases in societal anxiety and depression. (See this Wall Street Journal article and these Kaiser Family Foundation stats.)

Pinnacle is a magical place for campers to just be kids, have fun, and disconnect from the pressures they face every day, and we feel obligated to use our campus for their betterment. Letting camp sit empty for the summer doesn’t seem like the right response. We believe we can create a carefully isolated “Pinnacle bubble” that’s separate from the outside world, where for two weeks kids don’t have to worry about COVID-19. They can play outside, learn from caring role models, and greet old friends and make new ones. While no one can guarantee a place free from COVID-19, we think we can create a place that’s safer than most, if not all, typical summer alternatives (like beaches, amusement parks, campgrounds, even sports tryouts).

We know life isn’t returning to normal anytime soon; we don’t even know what’s going to happen with schools this fall. It’s very possible we could be facing this same decision about opening camp in 2021… if we don’t take the initiative now to figure it out.

Taking reasonable risks

The easiest decision, in terms of eliminating all risk, would be to close camp for summer 2020. But we don’t think that’s the best or ultimately the safest decision for our campers. Risk is an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. Acceptable and reasonable risk (one of the 5 R’s!) can only be defined in relation to perceived benefits while weighing the alternative risks of different courses of action.

We have been mitigating outdoor risk all our lives. Some camp activities we do on a regular basis (driving to Pisgah National Forest, rafting the Nantahala River, and mountain biking in DuPont, for example) are statistically more dangerous than the current probability of consequences from COVID-19, if contracted by those in our campers’ age group. While we realize there is far greater uncertainty with COVID-19 than, say, influenza, when we compare risks and benefits for kids who love camp, we would always choose letting our kids participate versus stay at home. (Here’s a WSJ article on the evidence of kids and COVID-19 and another on influenza vs. COVID-19.)

We didn’t make this decision rashly. And with the programming modifications we’ve made thus far—including reducing our enrollment by 35 percent, operating later in the summer, and quarantining and testing our counselors and leadership team—we can reduce much of the risk at Pinnacle.

What’s next?

We are moving ahead carefully and staying well-connected within the camp industry. Many camps in the South will open an entire month earlier than us, so we’ll watch them carefully to learn from their successes and failures. If at any time we feel that the risks become too great, we will change our decision. We are also continuing to watch the outside world and data from the state of North Carolina. We hope to be in phase three with fewer restrictions when camp opens. Should numbers in NC take a turn for the worse in the month ahead, that may affect how we move forward.

The choice of whether to attend camp this summer (and the reasons behind that choice) will be unique to each family. We respect whatever decision families make, and we know coming to Camp Pinnacle may not be the right choice this year for some of you. (And if that’s the case, we’ll welcome you with open arms in 2021.) For those of you joining us in 2020, we will rely on an enhanced partnership with parents that begins with the shared belief that life and camp can never be 100 percent certain, and that this year there are more unknowns than ever. In short, we believe that every family has different circumstances and must weigh the benefits and risks to decide if camp is a “reasonable risk.”

We promise to do our very best, but again, even if we could test every camper several times, no system will be foolproof. We are counting on parents to do all in their power to bring healthy campers to us. The biggest risk may come after camp, and keeping Pinnacle kids away from vulnerable populations for two weeks once they return home is a critically important responsibility (another one of the 5 R’s!).

We will continue to study the science and run the best possible camp while mitigating as much risk as we can. We are working incredibly hard and doing all in our power to continue to create a special place for kids. If you missed it, you can view our new 2020 Standards of Care here, and some FAQs for summer here. We encourage you to read both thoroughly to understand what we’re doing differently this summer. We are here for you; call us anytime at 855-378-1928 with questions, as your comfort is of paramount importance to us.

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