Trek on: Scouting in the time of COVID-19

By DAVID NELSON, Contributor

“We’re still scouting!” said BSA scout leader Craig Nesbitt.

With Zoom meetings, virtual campouts and outdoor sessions with masks and social distancing measures in place, scouting looks a little different during the times of COVID-19. Local units of Boy Scouts of America have changed programs significantly in recent months to go virtual but remain engaging.

The groups in the area encourage scouts to continue in rank advancement, participate in service projects, and plan for the future when meeting in groups and camping becomes regular again.

Virtual rank advancement

Scouts BSA Troop 271, chartered by the Cedar Park Rotary Club, meets at Austin Stone Church and hosts youth from the Four Points area, from fifth grade through the age of eighteen years. After seeing an influx of 32 scouts in the first couple of months of 2020, the troop had to quickly switch gears to adjust to COVID. Like other units, Troop 271 began to host regular virtual meetings.

“The Troop has been running in this virtual mode since April and we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” said Scoutmaster Derek Chater.

Restrictions on outdoor meetings make advancement difficult, so scouts have had to find a way to make it successful, as a key part of the scouting program is geared to acquiring new skills and new levels of responsibility within a troop. Regular camping is part of the routine as it allows for the scouts to lead activities and trade off responsibilities.

“All are desperate to go camping again at some point, but in the meantime, scouts have taken advantage of the online merit badges offered by Capital Area Council,” Chater said.

In spite of restrictions on local camping, 11 of the scouts from the troop were able to travel to BSA’s newest high adventure camp, Summit Bechtel Reserve, in West Virginia in July. While group gatherings were limited, the scouts were able to enjoy a series of activities, including ziplining, white water rafting, skateboarding, archery, and riflery.

Elijah Roberts, a Steiner Ranch scout, noted that provisions were in place for social distancing, but they were still able to take advantage of the programs.

Cub Scouts go virtual

Four Points area Cub Scout units have had to modify the program extensively or pause to plan for the future. Scott Carswell has served as Cubmaster of Cub Scout Pack 203, based in Steiner Ranch. He said that while in-person meetings came to a dramatic halt after their Blue and Gold banquet, an annual recognition event, scouts have been doing a lot of work at home and online.

Carswell explained that Cub Scouts in the Austin-area have been able to advance with the advent of “Adventure Boxes.” These boxes, available for a fee at the local scout store, provide the resources necessary for a Cub to advance in rank with the assistance of family and unit leaders.

“Ninety percent of the 47 scouts have completed their badge requirements via zoom meetings or with their parents between March and the end of July,” Carswell noted.

He and the rest of the leadership has recommended that dens, small units with 5 to 10 scouts, coordinate the bulk of activities due to the fact that they can meet in-person safely and maintain social distancing.

Carswell and the fellow leaders hope to schedule a “family” campout, that includes parents and scout siblings, when possible, but for now that goal remains distant. The event offers a time for the organization to come together as a whole.

“Family campouts are the greatest retention tool we have, hands down,” Carswell added.

Girl units forge ahead

Girls were introduced into Cub Scouts in 2018 and then into Scouts BSA programs in 2019, enabling girls from Kindergarten through age 18 to join what traditionally had been an all-boys program. Troops 358 of Good News United Methodist in Cedar Park and 219 of the Cedar Park Rotary Group have both remained active in the times of COVID.

Jessica McLane has served as Scoutmaster of Troop 358 since it formed in 2019. In an interview with fellow leaders Heather Spencer and Tim Urban, she outlined an overview of what they have done to adjust to limited meetings.

“We’ve had two virtual campouts, where they had the choice to camp in their backyard or in their house in a shelter that they made, whether it be inside or outside,” McLane said. “They could do whatever they wanted to do, such as sleep in a hammock.”

In some ways the scouts are adapting faster than the adults.

“It’s fun to see their creativity – how they are overcoming,” McLane said. “They are learning new ways to do the same thing. Just like the adults are, everybody’s working together. It’s been very positive. There’s been a lot of growth through this to let them see you can keep doing this even if you can’t be in person.”

The girls were able to complete the Insect Merit Badge through a virtual scavenger hunt.

“They spent an hour searching for bugs and they came back and shared the pictures of their bugs on Zoom,” said McLane.

The troop leaders noted that the troop is working more on merit badges and rank advancement because they have the time that’s not always available when other activities fill the schedule. However, as sports, band and other activities were cancelled, the regular, weekly scout meetings have been a foundational part of the scouts’ lives during what can be a turbulent time.

“This was the highlight of the week for some of our scouts,” said Spencer. “For some parents and the scouts, these meetings are really important for that human connection, and it was the one thing that kept going instead of getting cancelled.”

Outside of COVID times, Troop 219 typically meets at Austin Stone Church. Kevin Uhlenhaker, Scoutmaster of Troop 219, echoes the sentiment that the scouts are adjusting to the changing times.

“We transitioned over to virtual meetings,” said Uhlenhaker, whose daughter Eliza serves as senior patrol leader of the troop. “We were planning on going to summer camp in New Mexico, but the camp was cancelled. While one girl went to camp on her own, the rest of the girls did online merit badges.”

The inability to camp collectively in the outdoors can be difficult because the scouting program experience is built on camping. Even some of the basic activities have been more challenging.

“Virtual knot tying doesn’t work,” Uhlenhaker with a chuckle.

Sea scouts seeking ship shape

While social distancing may come naturally to sailors, one scout group dedicated to sailing has taken advantage of COVID restrictions to improve their boats. Sea Scout Ship 681, which has several boats at the nearby Austin Yacht Club, pulled its flagship 24-foot sailboat out of the lake for the first time in April and has worked to refinish the hull and rewire the mast through a series of workdays.

Sea scouts, like “Venturing” is a program geared toward older scouts aged 14 to 20. Through learning navigation, knots, motor boating, the program seeks to build leadership through command of crews on the water.

Chris Schuttger, who serves as “Skipper,” the adult leader, noted that sea scouts have not stood still.

“During the March thru July period, we had mixed online meetings where we worked on requirements and maintenance projects where we put family members working together to social distance,” Schuttger said. “We also continued to sail as our small boats are one person boats and it’s the best form of social distancing in sailing.”

Fall recruiting 

Nesbitt, the district commissioner, said that fall is typically the time for recruiting in schools, but that effort will be minimized due to COVID. Instead, they plan to reach out to potential scouts virtually. Interested parents and youth can explore the scout units in the area by going to and entering the zip code.

“The experience this year will be different, but our motto is to ‘be prepared,’ Nesbitt noted, “so the COVID pandemic offers a challenge for scouts to learn to adapt to changing circumstances. Especially during changing times, scouts can present a one-of-a-kind opportunity for youth to acquire life skills and become leaders.”

David Nelson is the COO of MiliMatch, a recruiting software company, and a resident of Grandview Hills. Nelson is also a committee member of BSA North Shore District and Troop 234, and a unit commissioner, “mate” for Ship 681, and the Order of the Arrow chapter adviser.