Roxborough: How The Schuylkill Nature Center has Adapted to Social Distancing

Summer camp class at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (Credit: The Schuylkill Center)

Nestled in Upper Roxborough surrounded by green meadows, four miles of hiking trails, ponds, and wetlands sits The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Once farmland, the Schuylkill Nature Center is now an urban environmental education center anchored around four core program areas: education programs, art, land stewardship, and wildlife rehabilitation. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the center has been documenting its response to the coronavirus on its blog. The center has also been running its popular summer camp, for children ages 3-12, since late June. It will continue to run the camp, with social distancing and mask precautions, until Aug. 21. 

Families of camp-goers must sign a COVID-19 waiver prior to dropping off their child for camp. Staff and campers must wear a mask, except for eating and drinking. Campers are also allowed to remove their masks when staying 6 feet away from other people. 

At camp, temperatures are checked at the start of each day, for both campers and staff. Children are dropped off and picked up during staggered time slots to avoid congestion. Campers and staff members are asked to stay home if they begin to show any symptoms of COVID-19. 

Though the visitor center remains closed Sundays through Friday for the month of August, it will be open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The center will also run its nature preschool and kindergarten programs in September using practices developed for summer camp. The center’s wildlife clinic has also been operating with a limited staff, accepting calls through voicemail. 

Despite these changes, Amanda Cohen, manager of public programs at The Schuylkill Nature Center, said there are many ways the center continues to connect people with nature, and COVID-19 hasn’t stopped them. 

What would you say embodies Schuylkill Nature Center as a whole?

Our mission statement is that we connect people with nature, so that’s done on many different levels. In my department it’s mainly done through education. We have our summer camps and public programs. And an early childhood education department where we have a nature preschool and nature kindergarten. 

We also have an environmental rt department. We have a gallery that’s in our center, an indoor gallery that rotates different artists throughout the year. Each of those artists have an environmental focus, so that’s just a different avenue we connect people with nature. 

In addition to that we have some art installations along our trails. We also have a wildlife clinic that brings in sick and injured animals and helps to rehabilitate them. 

The last department that we operate to make those connections is our land and facilities department. During the regular year, land and facilities have a lot of volunteer-led programs. The third Saturday of every month we have what’s called the restoration volunteer workdays where volunteers will come out and do trail maintenance, pulling invasive species and things like that. 

This year is a little different. We have had to think creatively to try to make those connections between people and nature. But in a typical year we operate out of those four main departments.

What programs are the Center running since stay-at-home orders have been lifted?  

We are slowly getting back into programs. We aren’t at the point where we are offering in-person programs yet because we really wanted to invest all of our time and energy into making sure we are doing summer camp correctly. There is just so much more that goes into it than previous years. 

Currently, we do have virtual programming that we are offering. Every Thursday we are doing what we call Thursday Night Live, which is a Zoom series with a different topic every Thursday. We usually have a different speaker each week and we started that in June. In addition to that every Monday on Facebook we are doing a virtual program called Ask a Naturalist. Folks can tune in and we have an environmental educator there and they can ask an array of questions. 

We’ve also been doing what we call Schuylkill Saturdays, which was a free program that we hosted every single Saturday before the pandemic. We’ve been trying to continue that virtually with a different topic each Saturday. Usually what the educator will do is talk about whatever the topic is and then give families take-home activities so that they can continue their exploring on their own. Again, we are trying to encourage those connections even if we can’t be the ones facilitating them. 

What were the areas of concern in decisions to move forward with your summer camp programming?

The concerns that we have had mostly center around our summer camp because it is our one in-person program that we are doing. We just want to make sure that we are following the City’s orders and doing everything to the best of our ability. We are not going to reopen with programs again until we feel like it is absolutely safe to do so. 

I think summer camp has really been great because we’ve put a lot of things in place so that then they can be carried over in our other in-person programming. We wouldn’t have opened summer camp if we felt like we couldn’t do it safely. 

For us, it’s about being very cautious before jumping into everything. We don’t want to assume because summer camp is going well that that’s going to translate to everything. We want to make sure that for everyone, whether it’s our nature preschool or kindergarten or public programming, that we have plans in place before opening them up, just like we did with summer camp.  

What are some activities one can expect from your summer camp amid COVID-19? 

For the younger ones, I’d say from 3 to 7 years old, it’s a lot of explorative play. We have themes each week and we do teach to those themes. But we also follow a lot of where their interests lie. 

Some of the overarching things that we do across the board, regardless of age, is a lot of canoeing at our ponds. We have smaller ponds where we’ll scoop for tadpoles, frogs, water bugs. It’s a lot of explorative play, so we’ll go to fields where they can build forts or climb over boulders or rocks. But we really try to follow the kids’ lead and their interests as much as we can. It’s kind of a mix of free play and then also mixing in those themes and making sure that we have activities that adhere to those themes. 

Summer camp underway at Schuylkill Nature Center (Credit: The Schuylkill Nature Center)

What financial constraints will Schuylkill Nature face due to COVID-19?

It’s been nice to have summer camp because, of course, it does bring in revenue. We did receive one of the PPP loans, which was nice and really helped a lot in the beginning. After that, summer camp started up, so I think we were fortunate in that aspect. We were able to start summer camp safely, which did bring in some revenue. But I think going forward, we’re just taking things very slowly and being very cautious in everything that we are doing.

Can you talk about your membership and how much the Center relies on donations and planned giving?

We rely on them a lot, especially now. Those donations and our memberships are great. We have a lot of people who have been members for years and it’s helpful outside of coronavirus, but especially during this pandemic, to have that money that is sustaining and coming in. 

Outside of our membership base, we have a lot of grants that are mostly for school programs that run during the school year. Our director of development is really great about seeking out new grant opportunities when they arise. Those grants are helpful, always. 

What plans does Schuylkill Center have for the future and how can the community get involved?

I’d say definitely volunteering and membership are important. It helps us. Volunteers and members help sustain us not only during the pandemic, but otherwise. Outside of that, I’d encourage the public to check out our upcoming events calendar. We pride ourselves on trying to have different events to try and cater to both families and single adults, so hopefully, there is something that is of interest to everyone. Right now, it’s looking a little empty just because of the pandemic, but I’d encourage folks to continue to check it. 

We do hope at some point soon, safely, to offer some in-person programs. They might not look like what they have in the past. I’d encourage people to become members and check that events calendar and attend an event when they can.

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