As children return to school after winter break, many are looking forward to heading to camps this summer after a year in which the camps couldn’t operate because of COVID-19. This time around, camps are going full steam ahead with in-person camps while putting in place new protections to prevent outbreaks of the virus.
Local Jewish summer camps, from the Marcus Jewish Community Center day camps to Camp Ramah Darom and non-Jewish camps that attract Jewish campers, such as the High Museum of Art Camps, are preparing to bring children back while ensuring their health safety.
Although camp experiences traditionally include close-quarter bus rides and numerous indoor events, many are shifting towards smaller units in which campers have limited contact with a specific group of other campers and participate in more outdoor activities.
Ramah Darom, a Jewish sleepaway camp in Northern Georgia, is welcoming back campers after holding an online camp experience last summer. The camp is taking a wide variety of measures to ensure camp safety and limit possible COVID-19 exposures. Before campers head onto buses, they will be required to have a negative PCR test, and will have their temperatures taken as well as rapid testing to some extent upon arrival and throughout the summer.
Camp Director Anna Serviansky, who assumed her new role last month, explained to the AJT that campers will be limited to a small group of contacts; restricted for the first seven to 10 days to their bunk or “pod,” as she called it. When different bunks interact, they will be socially distanced and wearing masks.
Serviansky said the goal is after that initial period, camper groups can be expanded to their grade or larger, if safe. “The camp program will largely be the same; they will still be able to participate in all the activities,” Serviansky said. “The one major difference is that we will not be taking any of our campers into cities for day trips or overnights. Instead, we are going to be doing a lot of nature based activities.”
While overnight camps may have more close contact between campers, day camps also face a variety of challenges.
MJCCA day camps, which offered in-person and virtual camps last summer, have moved camps largely outside and downsized their cohorts in response to the pandemic. With camper groups of 12 last summer, some traditions had to change, according to Jodi Sonenshine, director of MJCCA Day Camps.
For instance, camp usually has one large Shabbat gathering. This summer each group of campers will be holding its own Shabbat. Campers also have to go through temperature screenings and clean anything they use. Sonenshine said that the biggest lesson learned from last summer was: “We can be COVID safe and have a magical summer, full of everything that MJCCA day camps are known for.”
In The City Camps, Jewish day camps for kindergarten through ninth graders, expanded from half days last summer to full days planned for this year. Up to 15 campers will be assigned to a bunk and will not mix with other bunks, according to Tali Benjamin, ITC director of marketing. Campers will still be able to choose their own activities, but masks will still be required, as well as social distancing when possible, she said.
“We ran four weeks of in-person camp last summer when a lot less was known, and we did it successfully with no cases of COVID, so we really feel confident that our model works and that we can keep campers safe and still have fun and it feeling like camp.”
The High Museum of Art also hosts a summer camp for children in grades one through eight, and will do so in person again this summer.
“Like last summer, we will be socially distanced in our workshops; we are reducing the number of campers per workshop [down from 25 to 12], and requiring masks,” said Melissa Katzin, High Museum manager of family programs. “We want to make sure all of our campers are safe and healthy.”
Campers will also have their own supplies, go through staggered drop offs, and have temperature checks in the morning. The biggest lesson they learned last summer, per Katzin, was that “for kids it takes a lot more reminders. … We were trying to learn a lot of things as we go along, so it was a lot of trial and error.”
The museum was closed to guests during camp last summer. Campers and relevant staff were the only ones with access to the building at the time. But the museum will be open this summer with safety precautions in place. The camp hopes “to make it safe and healthy, but as fun as it can possibly be, and getting campers that opportunity for informal learning and to make new friends, explore and have a lot of fun,” Katzin said.
COVID-19 may be making camps this summer different than usual, but camp leaders hope that campers will still be able to have fun and enjoy a safe summer experience they will remember for a lifetime.