Refusing to let the pandemic ruin their summer, local camps overhauled programming to ensure some semblance of normalcy. Can parents expect more of the same this year?
Summer camp has long been a rite of passage for kids looking to explore a world away from home. But with so many uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, that world has become more perilous. Last summer, some local camps opted to cancel programming. Others drastically altered their plans.
Berwyn’s Upper Main Line YMCA was among those who moved forward with in-person camps. And by June, parents like Radnor Township’s Melissa Bruno were comfortable entrusting their kids to UMLY’s staff. Her eldest child, 10-year-old Xavier, has been a camper there for several years. “I’m a big proponent of taking the mental health of our children seriously,” says Bruno, whose 5-year-old daughter, Athena, attended camp for the first time last year. “What are you willing to risk, and what are the benefits that you’re going to gain from that risk? Seeing the way our children’s effect had changed over the past three to four months of not being in a social environment, it was no question as to whether or not we were going to send them to camp.”
At the start of the pandemic, YMCA of the USA partnered with the American Camp Association to create a game plan that involved CDC guidelines, understanding that individual sites would further incorporate the potentially more stringent state and local health regulations. “The main focus really centered around [placing] the campers in stable groups,” says Brian Raicich, UMLY’s executive director.
Each group maxed out at 12 and included two counselors. “There was no commingling,” Raicich says.
Groups didn’t so much as pass each other, and schedules were coordinated to ensure distancing. So if a COVID case emerged, it would stay contained. “We knew it was a 54-acre piece of land—distance wasn’t going to be an issue,” says Bruno.
UMLY normally sees upwards of 900 campers a week, but new restrictions limited capacity to just over 300. This allowed for indoor contingency plans on rainy days. Mask wearing became mandatory, except when eating and drinking. “Of everything else we’d put in place, we were most concerned about how we were going to manage [masks],” says Raicich. “But kids are resilient. From ages 3 to 16, they did it.”
Health-screening questions were the norm at daily drop-off. Children’s temperatures were taken, with 100.4 degrees as the cutoff. Kids were then escorted to their groups, stopping to wash their hands at a set of new outdoor sinks. There was ample hand washing throughout the day, and any items or spaces shared between groups were sanitized. Some programs were canceled, and there was no singing in theater camp. “Families that, in years past, may have chosen more of our indoor camps were more drawn to the outdoorsy camps [where they’re] mucking around, doing stream studies in the woods,” says Raicich.
After an isolated spring, Bruno saw significant changes in her kids at camp. “You could slowly start to see life coming back into them,” she says. “They were just so happy to be able to be children again.”
Raicich’s own children attend UMLY camps. “We had staff getting emotional,” he says. “Seeing those kids be kids, it made it all worth it in the end. With what we put in place, a little bit of luck, a lot of work on the part of our risk management team, and compliant families, we didn’t have a single case of transmission during our summer camp season.”
Last summer, Conestoga High School sophomore Cate Oken grabbed her mom’s laptop and set it up in her bedroom five days a week so she could sing, dance and act. Performing for a camera smaller than a thumbnail was no easy feat, but it was rewarding. Cate was one of dozens of area kids performing online through Bryn Mawr’s Wolf Performing Arts Center, which has offered such camps for over a decade.
The lockdowns last March meant a huge shift in programming for Wolf PAC, which holds main-stage performances throughout the year, along with classes and individual instruction. A spring performance of Fiddler on the Roof that stalled mid-production found a home online. When sharing a physical space was no longer feasible, Zoom became the new norm. “We’ve learned during these crazy times that community keeps us going,” says Wolf PAC artistic director Betsy Wolf Regn. “There was no planet where we were going to say, ‘We’re just doing nothing.’ That’s never an option. We will find a way.”
Typically split into three age groups with some camps extending over two weeks, programming was modified last year. Half-day sessions were introduced, and age considerations were more fluid. Each week, Regn and program director Laura Barron selected the groups, recognizing that family needs varied.
To keep full-day campers engaged, mornings focused on music and afternoons on acting, with themes changing weekly. Teaching and directing also had to change. “How do you [perform] on a device instead of live in-person? Do you stand? Do you just sit and perform? How does that all translate to the screen?” poses Barron. “At first, it was definitely very weird, because a lot of performing is the audience—how the audience reacts, you feel their energy,” says Cate.
Wolf PAC also incorporated design elements, having kids mock up playbills and create costumes out of what they had at home. “Kids are incredibly adaptable,” says Regn. “They want to connect, and they want to learn.”
Still, technical issues arose. Tricky internet connections, background noise and other distractions required troubleshooting. Breakout rooms became essential for one-on-one direction. “If there was a child who was having a rough morning, Laura could hop on the Zoom call and into this breakout room,” adds Regn.
Through a combination of one-on-one sessions and the larger camp experience, Cate refined her skills across a broader range of theatrics. “As a high schooler, with most plays and musicals, you get to focus on one character for two to four months,” she says. “With this camp, you get a new scene, monologue or part every week, so it really helped expand my repertoire.”
For some, self-esteem was a factor.
“We had a handful of kids who, when they started an online program, didn’t want to show their faces, didn’t want to do a solo,” says Barron. “By the next week, they decided they wanted to have a role and had that growth you’d see in-person.”
With 15 or fewer campers per group, kids got plenty of support. “It’s really hard to perform, especially on a Zoom environment,” says Cate. “But you go up there and you just know that people are going to be supportive and loving and kind, no matter what.”
Performing a show online each week had its advantages for families who lived farther away and those with busy schedules. Cate’s dad works in Lancaster, and he was able to tune in. Her mom, Dorothy, caught shows from the Radnor Library, where she works part time. “I’d just put it on my phone, and my coworkers would watch it, too,” she says.
All in all, Wolf PAC saw about half as many campers as they would have for in-person sessions. Despite the smaller enrollment, they still see virtual camp as a success. Looking ahead to this summer, they’re planning for virtual and (hopefully) in-person options. “If spring continues in the right direction and we’re able to be on site as safely as possible, we’ll have an on-site summer camp,” says Regn.
As with last summer, enrollment and programming will be determined based on local and state restrictions, with some decisions occurring months in advance and others more last minute. What’s certain is that camps will continue to offer as safe an experience as possible while maintaining some semblance of normalcy, whether it’s person, online or a hybrid of the two.
Whatever the case, the show must go on.
Related Article: The Main Line’s 2021 Summer Camp Directory