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As UW-Eau Claire summer camps resume, testing shows no positive COVID-19 cases

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire senior basketball player Ellie Clayton works with campers at summer camp in McPhee Physical Education Center this month. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

Thousands of young people are returning to sports and academic camps this summer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire after a one-year hiatus caused by COVID-19.

UW-Eau Claire women’s head basketball coach Tonja Englund is thankful to be back teaching fundamentals to about 700 young girls who will attend her camps at McPhee Physical Education Center this summer. Last year was the first time in Englund’s 22 years at UW-Eau Claire that she didn’t operate a basketball camp.

“It really is one of my favorite things to do as a coach,” Englund says. “It brings you back to what it’s all about. There is a lot of joy just in the basic idea of being able to come back in a gym.

“It’s been phenomenal this year. The parents have been so appreciative to have their kids be able to get back in the gym.”

UW-Eau Claire follows the UW System and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and encourages people to be vaccinated.

To ensure the safety of campers this year, all unvaccinated staff members and participants who are enrolled in camps that operate for more than one day are required to take a free COVID-19 antigen test. Single-day program participants are not tested, but their temperatures are taken and symptoms are checked.

As of July 15, about halfway through the summer camp season, more than 1,100 antigen tests have been administered with no positive test results.

“We were expecting and prepared to have participants show up that had a positive test,” says Kyran Hamill, camps and conferences manager in UW-Eau Claire’s University Centers. “We knew they would have to be excluded to have a safe camp for everyone else. It has been awesome to see that we have zero positive tests and know that everybody is safe. And it’s nice to not have to exclude students.”

The test results have been a welcome surprise to Aleah Sauter, testing site lead for Rhino Medical Services. Sauter supervised UW-Eau Claire’s antigen testing site for faculty, staff and students during the 2020-21 academic year.

“Since we have been primarily testing college-aged kids and above, we weren't sure how this younger demographic would fare,” Sauter says. “Statistically, I expected at least a couple of positive cases, so hopefully this is showing that COVID-19 is finally slowing down.”

Campers discovered the antigen test was quick and easy, Sauter says, and allowed them to participate in group activities.

“Kids are amazingly adaptable and have taken the new process in stride,” Sauter says. “We try to have fun with it by having music going and making it into a game so most kids leave saying, ‘That was it?’ because they expected much worse.”

UW-Eau Claire operates about 55 youth programs from May to August with more than 3,500 participants. Camp participants range from kindergarten to high school age, with most in middle school and high school participating anywhere from a day to a month.

Sports camps range from basketball and volleyball to distance running and tennis. Non-sports camps range from percussion clinics and Upward Bound to computer science and the Midwest Artist Academy.

Camp directors try to keep participants in groups of 25 to improve safety, Hamill says. When a full camp gathers, participants are expected to wear masks.

“We’re really grateful and fortunate to be able to offer opportunities this year in a safe environment,” Hamill says.

Summer camps are an integral part of UW-Eau Claire’s volleyball program, offering coaches and Blugold student-athletes an opportunity to give back to the sport and increase the popularity of volleyball in the Eau Claire community, says Kim Wudi, UW-Eau Claire head volleyball coach. Wudi will host about 850 campers from ages 5-18 in nine different camps this summer.

“Our student-athletes grow by leaps and bounds in their leadership and communication while coaching at camp, which helps our team be successful on the court,” Wudi says. “And when it comes time for campers to start looking at their postsecondary plans, we hope that their experience as a camper puts attending UW-Eau Claire on their list of options.”

Dan Schumacher, UW-Eau Claire’s director of athletics, agreed that the camps allow young people to see the UW-Eau Claire campus perhaps for the first time and possibly consider attending in future years.  

“The campus is back alive,” Schumacher says. “It feels like we are getting back to normal. It’s good to see the number of kids and parents back on campus.”

The cancellation of camps in the summer of 2020 was difficult for camp directors, workers and the would-be campers, Englund says.

“It was really hard,” says Englund, who has operated camps for a total of 35 years. “It was a challenging year for everyone because a lot of my campers are longtime campers; I see them every year. That connection to my campers is super important to me. All my players work camps and it was hard on them too. Many of my players are going to be teachers and coaches, so my players learn how to give back.”

With the COVID-19 protocols in place, campers are learning about more than sports and academic interests this year from UW-Eau Claire students working at the camps, Englund says.

“There is a leadership element that is part of our camps,” Englund says. “My players talk to campers so they can hear what really is important right now.  Campers have role models again. It’s a win-win.”