In March of 2020, Lauren Wexler, director of camps at the 92Y, was preparing for another summer of swimming, dancing and learning at all seven 92Y camps. Of course, you already know what happened next.
In the summer of 2020, 92Y’s camps went virtual, becoming “elective based,” where kids picked what they wanted to do with their day. There were offerings like TikTok Dances, coding and virtual soccer, and celebrities like Al Roker came in to speak to the kids at lunchtime for Q&A sessions. Even virtually, the program received positive feedback from campers and parents who were grateful for something to occupy their, or their kids’, time.
But the loss of in-person camp was felt hard, including by the staff. “It was definitely sad not being able to come to camp,” Head Counselor Emma Hedricks explained. A recent grad of Pace University, she was hired to work at camp last summer, and was unable to come as camps shifted to virtual experiences. “It feels like we missed out on two years of kids’ development not seeing them in person.”
Camp Ilanot, 92Y’s immersive Hebrew camp, usually brings a group of staff from Israel as shlichim (Hebrew for emissaries) to be counselors for the kids, but last year’s group was unable to come to the US with international borders on lockdown. Nitzan Ventura, a current shlichim and a shlichim in summer 2019, was also hired to work last summer, and shifted to a virtual role. “It was sad not to see the same kids I was with in the summer of 2019, but I was happy to be able to see them virtually.”
Running a camp after a year of social distancing and online learning was due to be a challenge, including creating safety protocols. “Our protocols changed three times between May and June,” Wexler explained. As the city and state updated rules for gatherings and camps, 92Y adapted, and adapted again. This summer, the staff and campers are enjoying being back in person together, even with masks on and the safety planning in place.
Staying open and staying safe is a top priority for 92Y camps. With some other camps in New York shutting down due to COVID outbreaks, the 92Y remains open, with COVID safety procedures in place. “We had 16 months to figure out what we were going to do this summer,” Wexler said. “And we want to run all 39 days of camp in person, which means being cautious, and following the protocol ... the first time life has felt normal in a year, has been at camp.”
Even though most children aren’t vaccinated due to their age, for the kids, it really does feel like summer as usual. “Our kids have been really good about mask-wearing, and following the rules,” Hedricks explained. Even with changes from previous summers, the kids have been enjoying the program to the fullest. “Everything’s changed, from the way we run the buses to get up to camp, to the activities, but the adjustment has gone well.”
Even camp traditions, like their annual camp carnival, changed to be safe and bubbled in comparison to years previous. “We usually have popcorn, and cotton candy, and inflatables, but all of that had to be shifted.” Wexler said, “Like this year we had the popcorn ready to go and grab for the kids, instead of from a machine one by one, things like that.”
While it can be a challenge to keep safety and fun in mind, the payoff is worth it. “Of course it’s hard,” Ventura explained, “but it’s an invitation to get creative, to take things that the kids do know and remember, and make it work now.”
And after a summer of Zoom camp, and a year of Zoom classes, both campers and staff alike are grateful to have some no-screen time. “I’m so happy to not be on Zoom.” Hedricks said. “The regular camp anxiety still exists, like, will the kids still have this conflict? You’re tired, you’re working all day, but after a year of doing virtual classes, the camp anxiety is less. It still exists, and the COVID anxiety still exists, but everyone is just so happy to be in person, interacting with each other.”
Looking forward to the rest of the summer, Wexler is excited to run Camp Idol, the camp talent show, in a socially distant and safe way, and is also happy for a welcome return to normal for her, and her kids. “I have two elementary school aged kids, and not having them in the background of all my Zoom calls and getting some time to work again, and my other mom friends have felt the same way, has been great.”
Ventura is looking forward to this summer’s Israel Day, a celebration of Israeli culture for Camp Ilanot, even if it will look different than the last in-person summer. “Again, it’s a challenge to have it be as exciting for the kids as it was, but it’s still a day where we share our culture and what we love with the kids.”
“We want to run all 39 days of camp in person, which means being cautious, and following the [safety] protocol ... the first time life has felt normal in a year, has been at camp.” 92Y Director of Camps Lauren Wexler