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Gainesville’s Earth Academy Day Camp Ends Early Due To Spike In Community's Coronavirus Case

Nature Assistant Merald Clark disinfects the tables and chairs as the counselors clean up at the end of the day. (Emma Ross/WUFT News)
Nature Assistant Merald Clark disinfects the tables and chairs as the counselors clean up at the end of the day. (Emma Ross/WUFT News)

The Earth Academy day camp, which was supposed to run through the rest of the month in Gainesville, is instead ending Friday.

The original reason for holding the camp even amid the COVID-19 pandemic was to assist families with the mental, social and physical wellbeing of their children.

Sally Wazny is the education supervisor for the camp, which is being held at Morningside Nature Center. She said that their goal in hosting the camp was to help alleviate some of the stress that parents might feel in the current circumstances—particularly parents who are also essential workers.

“We recognize that there are many families in this situation,” Wazny said. “That was a general community concern and remains the community’s concern.”

The decision to cancel the camp remainder was made very close to the start of the first camp dates, which left a narrow window for parents to make alternate plans, Wazny said. This is the reason camp was still held from July 6 to July 10.

Camps were canceled because of the spike in COVID-19 cases in the county, Wazny said. But there was a high likelihood that specific sessions would have been canceled anyway because there were not enough slots filled.

“My directive was that we would have 60% of the slots filled, and at least a couple of the sessions did not meet that criteria,” Wazny said.

It’s for students in school grades one through six.

Merald Clark, a nature assistant at Morningside Nature Center, and Justin Niblack, an environmental educator with Morningside Nature center, are two of the counselors overseeing the camp.

There were several COVID-19 precautions instituted, some of which included mandatory masks when social distancing was not possible, temperature checks, no field trips, and no activities within the education building.

Clark and Niblack said things had gone smoothly this week, even with the changes.

“Because we are only doing half a day instead of a full day, and because we have half the campers, it’s a lot easier,” Clark said. “When we go on hikes, we have asked the kids to stay the proper distance apart.”

If children were at a table, they sit on opposite ends and didn’t have to wear masks, Clark said, but when they stand up for activities, the masks went on.

“The masks are, of course, awkward and inconvenient,” Clark said. “But you know, it’s like the first day or two you’re sort of annoyed by them, but then you get used to it.”

Niblack was pleased with how the campers reacted to being back in a social setting.

“I thought that the kids would be a lot rowdier after being cooped up inside, but they’ve been very cooperative and understanding,” Niblack said. “It’s been better than I expected honestly.”

Coming up with activities for the campers involves a lot of trial and error, Niblack said.

“A lot of activities we’ve already been modifying and changing to fit the theme for our new camp, but really, we just have a lot of creative people,” Niblack said.

The most significant change was that there were fewer hands-on activities that involve counselors being close to the kids, Niblack said.

A typical day involves morning hikes, followed by what Clark calls a “good character development” activity.  These good character development activities focus on building things like responsibility, trustworthiness and caring.

“Each day, we take one of those characteristics and focus on it,” Clark said. “If we’re talking about fairness, they may have a story where someone was unfair to them or where they were trying to be fair to somebody else.”

The rest of the morning includes a snack break and an activity like dissecting owl pellets. Finally, the campers are given time for free play during the last 30 minutes.

Take-home activities will be available to families who enrolled in canceled sessions starting next week, Wazny said.

The Summer Earth Academy day camp is one of several camps offered by the City of Gainesville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs department.

Emma is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing