Many West Hartford camp programs are filling up quickly as families are looking for their kids to be outdoors and socializing with others.
By Kristina Vakhman
With summer quickly approaching and restrictions relaxing, youth camps in West Hartford are gearing up for a 2021 season that’s closer to “normal.”
“We’re looking forward to a more normal experience, a more normal summer,” said Colby Wyckoff, director of member relations and of Camp Shalom at the Mandell Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford.
Since last summer, licensed local camps have worked hard to adapt to the ever-changing safety guidelines put forth by the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The constant updates to COVID-related precautions can be difficult for youth camps to keep up with, but those like Camp Shalom at the JCC are ready to do what’s needed to bring kids and their families back safely.
“Most people are ready to be here in-person and because of the amount of space we have, most people are pretty comfortable being here,” JCC Chief Operating Officer Annie Keith said.
Though the CDC recently announced that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks, the OEC is requiring that young campers wear face coverings unless they are eating, drinking, or are outdoors, and is stating that all staff must wear masks. The CDC also calls for staff and age-eligible campers to be vaccinated.
Social distancing is still necessary as well. That means keeping children 3 feet from each other and separating them into cohorts by activity. Some like The Children’s Museum will also continue health screenings even if they’re no longer required.
The activities themselves have also needed to evolve. Helen Rubino-Turco, the director of West Hartford Leisure and Social Services, said that this year’s programming is based on what activities can be easily and quickly changed should guidelines shift again.
“We had to look at each camp and assess if it can be modified in case there are still restrictions in place,” she said.
The camps have lost some of their long-standing instructors, Rubino-Turco went on, but Leisure and Social Services has worked to introduce new replacement programming.
At The Children’s Museum, there’s a great emphasis to ensure that the hands-on programs are still available to kids, but kept safe. Senior Development Coordinator Joe DeFeo said that the activities and the museum itself are all rigorously cleaned, and that the museum will continue to follow guidelines.
“Everything will eventually catch up. We’ll work to get back to a place that everybody recognizes,” DeFeo said.
Sara Horwitz, the manager of the Vacation Summer Camp at The Children’s Museum, also said that there will still be virtual offerings like live animal demonstrations and that in-person animal events have been altered to keep both the critters and the kids healthy.
“We’ve adapted a lot of the activities we’ve done to make them COVID-safe,” Horwitz said. She’s looking forward to seeing the students and the junior counselors again. “I’m very excited because a lot of these students have been here for as long as I have.”
There have been programs to come out of COVID as well. The JCC, for example, is bolstering mental health programs in response to the coronavirus, and at camp, they got such a great response from kids to eating outdoors under tents that they will continue to do so in the future.
The updates are demanding, but West Hartford camps are up for it. At 2-4-1 Sports, where cohorts of 20 campers will rotate around multiple sports in a day, the staff will disinfect all sports equipment during the kids’ breaks at “home base.”
“What we’re trying to do is bring back backyard neighborhood play,” said Steve Boyle, the founder and director of 2-4-1 Sports, adding that the camp’s programs are reaching capacity fast.
That enthusiasm from parents to get their kids back to camp is an all-around pattern. Keith said that the JCC’s registrations are very high, as parents want the opportunity to get their kids outside and “have a normal summer.” Rubino-Turco said registration numbers for many Leisure and Social Services camps have reached their maximum numbers.
And at Camp KO, Director of Auxiliary Programs Sheri Slobin Shea said she’s been hearing from parents since the previous summer that they want their children outdoors and socializing again.
“Last summer, parents were like, ‘Please, take my kids.’ We sold out of everything,” Shea said.
Connecticut and camps themselves have introduced several initiatives to make camps accessible to as many children as possible because of the coronavirus’ toll. Last month, Governor Ned Lamont announced that $11 million would go toward expanding summer enrichment programs for children, like a free week at camp.
Camp KO and the JCC are both offering scholarships to children whose families have been financially impacted by the pandemic. And even if it’ll lose the JCC money, Keith said they are going back to their 2019 rates and allowing worry-free registration that promises a full refund should something happen.
“We wanted to give everyone a little bit of a break and do pricing that’s amenable to people who might’ve struggled financially this year,” she said.
In all, West Hartford camps are excited to welcome campers back, no matter how much preparation it’ll take to guarantee a safe return for everyone this summer.
“It’s a moving target. The best we can do is remain nimble and prepared,” Rubino-Turco said.
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