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Summer camps are open – with restrictions

Athena Camps” width=
Courtesy of Aby Ryan
Masked staff members at Athena Camps lead a group of girls in a game. Summer camps are allowed to run this summer, but the county has put safety requirements in place.

After months of being stuck indoors and completing schoolwork online, kids are now able to attend summer camps in person. However, that camp experience looks different than it has in years past.

Santa Clara County’s most recent public health order allows summer camps to operate but places requirements on the safety precautions they must take. Among them, campers have to be in “stable groups” of 12 or fewer, they can’t move between camps more often than every three weeks, and shared equipment must be sanitized between each group of kids.

“Camp is about connecting with other kids, and we want to try to make it as normal as possible, while trying to be safe,” said Vaibhavi Gala, founder of Camp Imagineerz, which has a location at Covington School.

During the month of June, Imagineerz is running an online option and then opening an in-person camp at Covington in July. Staff will be checking every child’s temperature daily when they are dropped off and then monitoring for symptoms throughout the day. Each classroom will have no more than 12 children, and within each class Gala is planning to have pods of three to five kids, who eat and play together, socially distanced from anyone else.

“We have to be on our toes and really be flexible in terms of what we’re doing,” Gala said. “We’re doing our best to keep up to date with what the county is sending and with what other camps are experiencing.”

Other camps also have been adapting their operations. DesignX, which will be operating camps at Egan Junior High School, is capping classes at 10 students and designating lunch and play areas for each group.

“We are putting a lot of safety procedures in place so that we can have a fun experience for the kids,” founder Durga Kalavagunta said.

The YMCA is running camps this summer, but they are all being held on YMCA property, with no field trips or bus travel. That has given staff more control over the environment, said Daniel Koba, executive director of youth development. Social distancing is required and staff are also adapting games so campers don’t have to touch.

“There’s going to be a lot of things that are going to be adjustments for kids,” Koba said. “Some of their favorite things might look a little bit different.”

Athena Camps, an all-girls camp with a location at Covington, is similarly adapting activities to maintain social distance, founder Aby Ryan said. That includes using Hula-Hoops, chalk lines and carpet squares to indicate for campers how far apart they should be.

Camp staff are also modifying any activities that would typically require touching, playing games like shadow tag, where kids step on each other’s shadow.

It has been relatively easy to keep each group of 12 separated, but maintaining distance within the groups has been more challenging, Ryan said. The camp is explaining social distancing to kids with the idea of “helicopter space,” meaning that campers should be far enough apart that if they each stand with their arms out and spin, they don’t touch one another.

“I’m super excited to have camps,” Ryan said. “It’s definitely been a challenge to make it work with the new guidelines and make sure that we’re keeping everybody safe.”

Interpreting rules

One particular challenge has been adapting to the requirement that children not move between programs more often than every three weeks, Ryan said. When that rule came down, Ryan said parents had lots of questions about just what was required.

“That caused a lot of confusion for parents and a lot of extra work for people like me,” Ryan said.

The county’s guidance states that camps should maintain enrollment and attendance records and should verify compliance “to the extent feasible.”

Athena Camps maintains those records, Ryan said, but can’t track the other camps a child may have attended.

Instead, the camp is alerting parents to the requirement, who then need to manage their own schedule.

Gala similarly said that while she is doing her best to explain the rule, the ball is in parents’ courts to ensure they are following the requirement. As the nuances of the county’s order are worked out, Gala said she is happy that she’s waiting until July for in-person camp to begin.

“This is why we waited until July, to learn from people’s experiences,” she said.

As some programs have opened in-person, others have decided that they can’t run on-site camps this summer.

Among them is Hidden Villa, a longtime staple of the Los Altos camps scene. In mid-May, Hidden Villa announced that in-person summer camp was canceled for the year. Camp staff are now working to roll out remote options.

According to Marc Sidel, Hidden Villa’s senior director of programs, camp is core to Hidden Villa’s legacy and identity, and the decision to cancel camp for the summer was difficult.

“It was painful. It was a really painful decision to make,” Sidel said. “I think we’re still a little bit in mourning from it.”

Hidden Villa’s camps weren’t designed such that they could be adapted to the county’s requirements, Sidel said. Among other things, campers only do single sessions, making the restriction on switching between camps difficult.

The camps are also “residential” in nature, with a mixture of day and overnight camps. Camp staff live on-site throughout the summer. The activities themselves are also often in confined spaces, such as animal pens, with many high-touch surfaces.

“Ultimately we decided that regardless of the onsite camp model, we weren’t confident we could operate a viable camp within a pandemic environment,” Sidel said.

In lieu of the traditional camp experience, Hidden Villa camp director Brenda Jones said that staff are planning at-home activities for campers. The focus will be on hands-on activities that don’t require the use of screens and are flexible.

“That is the feedback we got from our parents, that a lot of kids are burnt out on screen time and are really looking for different connections with nature,” Jones said.

Ultimately, Sidel said families have been largely sympathetic and shared in the sadness that Hidden Villa staff are experiencing.

“Currently, we plan to be back next summer and stronger than ever,” he said. “We just have a little more time for planning.”

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