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‘Challenging but rewarding’

CT day camps plan for a summer of fun – following strict state guidelines

By Stacey Dresner

A daily “Countdown to Camp” on the website of the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, has kept track of the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the JCC’s summer camp starts.

No doubt parents and kids – weary of the long quarantine at home – have also been counting down, although due to Covid-19, no one was sure if summer camps would be allowed to open.

Planning for the summer was especially hard for the three Jewish Community Center summer day camps in Connecticut, as they waited for the state to decide if and when they could open.

Camp directors finally got word from the state on May 18 that camps could open for the summer on June 22, with specific guidelines that must be followed, dealing with issues like group size and social-distancing. 

Both the JCC Day Camp in New Haven and the Day Camps @ The J at the Stamford JCC have announced that they will open on June 22.

“Our community is very excited that we will be running camp this summer,” said Debra Kirshner director of the JCC Day Camp at the New Haven JCC. “Some families have decided not to do camp for a variety of reasons and we respect their decision.”

Camp Shalom, operated by the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford will open on June 29, the date the state had at one time pegged as the date when camps would most likely open.

“We are going to open, obviously following all of the guidelines, and so we are now working out the logistics of all of that,” said Karen Wyckoff, director of the Windsor day camp. “We’re communicating with the families and staffing appropriately. We’re sticking with June 29; we need that extra week to prepare.”

All three of the JCC camps had to apply for waivers from the state to allow more than 30 children to take part in their programs, and were approved. (Summer camps are licensed by the Connecticut State Department of Early Childhood under the same policies and regulations of other childcare facilities, which have been limited to 30 children during Covid-19.)

Each of the camps are giving preference to campers already signed up for this summer and returning campers before opening up to the general public. 

Kirschner said that before the Covid-19 pandemic, the New Haven day camp was on its way to a record enrollment of 400 kids. “But with all the restrictions we will be limited to 200 campers per four-week session. Registration has been going well and we expect to fill all of our spots.”

Neither Wyckoff nor Jason Samuel, director of the J Camps at the Stamford JCC, could not say how many campers they will end up with this summer.

“That number is fluctuating each day,” Samuel said. “We are going to be operating in a limited capacity this summer for sure. We applied for the waiver to be able to have more campers. The number we were approved for, we won’t be anywhere near that. So definitely a limited capacity this summer and limited spaces for campers.

“Camp’s going to be smaller; camp is going to look and operate a little bit differently because of the regulations and best practices that we will be following this specific summer,” Samuel added. “But I think the essence of camp will still be there.”

And getting kids back to summer camp is important Samuel said.

“From talking to families, camp is needed right now, and not even from the parents’ point of view. I’ve spoken to parents who are working full-time and their kids have been home-schooling full-time and the kids are done with their parents,” Samuel laughed. “I’ve spoken with families that don’t need the childcare but they are still sending their children to camp because their children need that social and emotional exercise, besides the recreation of being outside. Going almost three months without being able to have fun with your peer group is almost detrimental to our youth.”

Annie Keith, director of operations at the Mandell JCC, said that JCC had sent out two different surveys to parents.

“We needed to know how many people really needed full-time daycare in the form of camp, and then from there, we wanted to know how many people just wanted summer activities,” she said. “It was helpful to do the survey again because now people are in planning mode and as the Governor announces his plans, and as things are going on around the country, people are getting a better sense of what is happening. Yesterday was the first time we put out what some of guidelines will be, including wearing face masks. We needed to give them a sense of what is going to be different at camp this summer so they can make their decisions.”

Making Adjustments

Every summer day camp in the state, including the three JCC camps, has been instructed by the state to follow strict guidelines:

Each morning all campers and staff will be screened for illness by a nurse or medical professional, who will be looking for coughing or respiratory distress. Everyone will have their temperature checked and anyone with a temperature of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit will not be permitted into the program that day.

Employees must wear PPE – Personal Protective Equipment” including masks or face coverings at all times. Campers maybe asked to wear masks in between activities. 

Children at each of the JCC camps will be divided into groups of ten. The groups of ten will re-main together, all day for the length of their attendance, and at a social distance from other groups of campers. Different groups of campers will not be allowed to co-mingle.

Campers who show signs of illness will be isolated from other campers and picked up by parents immediately

Camp facilities will be cleaned and sanitized frequently throughout the day. There are also stringent guidelines concerning frequent hand washing by staff and campers that must be done before and during contact, eating, sneezing or coughing, using the rest room, and touching any surfaces or equipment that might be shared. 

“For every decision we are making this summer, public safety is the most paramount,” Samuel said. “If we feel we can’t do it safely, it will stay out of the program.”

The staff of the New Haven JCC camp held a zoom meeting on Sunday, May 31 so that parents could have a chance to learn more about camp and to ask questions. Kirschner said that parents’ concerns included the camp’s mask policy, group size, hand washing, and the logistics of drop off and pick up. “And of course, most importantly, will there be GAGA? And our reply was, ‘Yes! GAGA can and will be played. [But] no more than one group of 10 campers and two staff can play at any given time).’”

“We will be offering almost all of the onsite programming we have offered in the past,” Kirschner said. “For example, arts & crafts, music, drama, dance, nature, sports, STEM, free swim, to name a few. The only difference is that they will be done in groups of no more than 10 campers. Unfortunately due to the OEC guidelines we will not be able to offer rock climbing or open time in our playscape in our main building. Sadly we will be unable to offer swim lessons due to social distancing guidelines.”

The Stamford JCC camp will offer “a good mixture of what we normally do,” said Samuel. “Our enrichment-style learning based activities like art and science, and a program we call Wilderness Adventures, which is basically pioneering and camp skills; sports obviously, like tennis; Israeli culture, our music program. And then we are also gong to balance that with some nice, low-structure play, like 4-square and volleyball and pickle ball.”

Camp Shalom will offer activities like “arts & crafts, some sports activities, and some water-front activities, all following the guidelines,” Wyckoff said. Swim lessons won’t be offered at Camp Shalom, but the JCC’s aquatics director Jayne Mazer is working on “aquatic experiences,” Wyckoff added. 

Keith said that some families are interested in half-day activity options for their children, so they are planning those activities at the JCC and at the JCC’s Tennis and Swim Club in Bloomfield, where its Sports Jams camp programs have traditionally been held.

Sports Jams will not be offering contact sports like soccer, basketball or football, but will offer tennis, some sports clinics, and field games. Campers will need to bring their own lunches, snacks and water to all of the camps; there will be no food prepared at the camps. None of the camps will be doing any field trips this summer, nor will they be offering transportation on buses. Parents will have to both drop off and pickup their campers.  

But even with all of the things campers will not be able to do, camp representatives are focusing on the positive.

“We are bringing summer staff on now and asking them to do some virtual connecting to the kids to bring some excitement and to build some trust. They might show themselves putting their masks on and off so the kids can see what it’s going to look like, but at the same time they will be getting them prepared and excited for the summer. And the kids really, really need a good summer,” Keith said. “They need outdoor time, they need time with friends and beloved counselors, so our goal is that, even with these challenging guidelines, we want to provide a really great summer for the kids who are going to be with us. They need it.”

“We are all eagerly waiting to get out and have some fun,” agreed said Kirschner. “While this will be one of the most challenging camp seasons ever, it will also be one of the most rewarding.”

Main Photo:  An aerial view of the JCC of Greater New Haven Day Camp in Woodbridge.

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