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Sonoma County summer camps in full swing after a year of isolation

One group of kids, age 8 to12, checked their chains, tire pressure and strapped on their bike helmets ahead of a ride to Santa Rosa’s Finley Community Park.

Another group, all 5 to 7 years old, screamed with delight as they used a giant parachute to launch different sized beach balls into the air at The Dance Center of Santa Rosa.

A third group, wearing life vests and hats, embarked a sunny kayaking trip at Riverfront Regional Park west of Windsor.

The commotion is the natural outcome as Sonoma County children by thousands return to parks, gyms, beaches and stages as summer camps finally get underway after a year of pandemic closures.

Hundreds of camps countywide have marked their return, and there is record demand for camp slots, many selling out within days, organizers said.

For parents, the reopening spells relief from constant child care brought on by the pandemic, allowing many to return to more normal routines.

“These camps are really an important way for parents to go back to work and fuel the economy more,” said Kristen Suarez, program supervisor for Sonoma County Regional Parks. “It’s a form of child care really.”

But the return has posed a new set of challenges for organizers. Foremost among them: How to keep an unvaccinated population — children under 12 — safe amid continued threat from the coronavirus?

Camp officials have turned to social distancing practices, mask requirements, limits on camp slots and smaller groups to minimize risk of spreading the virus.

“It has been a lot of work honestly, just to think about all the guidelines and protocols and how to keep everybody safe and comfortable,” said Suarez.

Kids get ready to go kayaking across the Riverfront Regional Park as part of the Sonoma Regional Parks Discovery Camp on Thursday (Sonoma Regional Parks).
Kids get ready to go kayaking across the Riverfront Regional Park as part of the Sonoma Regional Parks Discovery Camp on Thursday (Sonoma Regional Parks).

The county’s Discovery Camp, which makes use of regional parks, initially required masks for both staff and campers but with changing regulations, they planned to allow them to take their masks off in August when they are outside and at a safe distance from one another.

“Children are very affectionate and inclusive with one another,” Suarez said. “They’re playing games and getting close with each other. The difficult thing will be to remind everyone to maintain their distance while they have their masks off.”

Kids at The Dance Center of Santa Rosa wore masks last week as they shimmied and leapt across the studio at West 6th Street.

Campers at the Kids Bicycle Adventure Camp at Finley Park stood 6-feet away from each other on grassy field as they did socially distanced stretches before their bike ride.

Other camps focused on sewing, engineering and other pursuits were arranged around COVID-19 protocols that would have been jarring any other year. Gone are the overnight stays and cookouts at the city’s camps Wa-Tam and Yu-Chi.

But amid another summer clouded by a global pandemic, families are taking the changes in stride.

"The majority of parents have been appreciative of the protocols we’ve put in place,” said Amy Rocklewitz, recreation supervisor for the city of Santa Rosa.

When the pandemic forced summer camps to pause last summer, parents were left with long days of juggling work and entertaining kids, a difficult balance for many.

Campers wait their turn to practice a dance routine during an Under the Sea themed camp at The Dance Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday, July 15, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Campers wait their turn to practice a dance routine during an Under the Sea themed camp at The Dance Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday, July 15, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

The hiatus also sidelined learning experiences that kids often get outside of home and traditional classrooms.

So Kate Fisher was stoked to be able to send her only child, Grace, 6, to the Dance Center’s camp this year for her first time ever. She also enrolled Grace in swim lessons took her to Disneyland and on other vacations that she’d canceled last year.

“We’re just trying to make up for lost time because she’s 6 and doesn't know how to swim,” Fisher said.

Last week, Grace giggled with her friends under the twinkly lights and streamers of the Dance Center as part of their “Under the Sea” themed summer camp.

Last year was “rough,” said Serena Lienau, a working mother of a two kids, 4 and 7. When slots opened up this year, she made sure to enroll her 7-year-old, Dominic, for his first time at Camp Wa-Tam, the city’s storied summer camp.

“You want them to have the experiences that kids deserve as kids,” Lienau said. “I wanted him to have the experience of being outdoors with kids, engaging in nature and really growing.”

Camp Wa-Tam campers play dodgeball in Howarth Park in Santa Rosa on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Camp Wa-Tam campers play dodgeball in Howarth Park in Santa Rosa on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Chandler Benton also sent his three kids, 7,9 and 10, to Camp Wa-Tam this summer — a nice contrast from last year, when he and his wife struggled to find structure for the kids while working from home.

“Having a sense of normalcy return has been nice,” Benton said. “I mean, certainly there’s the mask and schedule differences but at least being able to have that child care support has been really helpful.”

Parents said they approached the decision with hope that camps could continue safely with precautions in place and be able to limit any potential outbreaks.

Rocklewitz said the city’s approach erred on the side of caution, with requirements that even vaccinated staff wear masks so they can set an example for kids.

Suarez said Regional Parks follows strict protocol by frequently cleaning equipment, enforcing socially distancing and carrying out necessary contact tracing.

The precautions have been successful at preventing an outbreak so far.

“Knock on wood,” Suarez said, tapping a fist on her desk.

Safe Routes To School Education Coordinator Danielle McElwee teaches Max Deane, 9, right, and Miles Notzon, 12, top,  how to change a flat bicycle tire during a Kid's Bicycle Adventure Camp at Finley Community Park in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Safe Routes To School Education Coordinator Danielle McElwee teaches Max Deane, 9, right, and Miles Notzon, 12, top, how to change a flat bicycle tire during a Kid's Bicycle Adventure Camp at Finley Community Park in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

But the attention to pandemic safety was evident at bicycle camp as well.

“Every step of the way is making sure they’re safe” said Tina Panza, camp director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

The group partnered with the city to host a bike-oriented camp this year. But in addition to helmets and other safety precautions, they also had to ensure COVID-19 safety protocols were in place, Panza said.

The camp, based out of Finley Park, is all about “being safe and loving your bike,“ she said.

And the buzz was all about bike safety last Thursday as a group of enthusiastic campers filled their air with their rendition of the chorus to Queen’s “Bicycle Race.”

“I want to check my air, brakes, chain,” the kids sang, improvising a drumroll on their laps and tables. “I want to check my tire’s air. I want to check my brakes. I want to check my bike chain. I want to check my pants and shoes!”

“I just like the feeling of being free and being in the nature,” said Kamal Fisher, 8, of Santa Rosa, who wore green and blue striped shorts, iridescent green sunglasses and a bike helmet.

Kamal didn’t mind the social distancing. He usually bikes with his mom and loves the street safety tips, he said.

Campers Gianna Hall, 6, left, and Liliana Maca, 5, practice a dance routine during an Under the Sea themed camp at The Dance Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday, July 15, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Campers Gianna Hall, 6, left, and Liliana Maca, 5, practice a dance routine during an Under the Sea themed camp at The Dance Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday, July 15, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Across town inside The Dance Center, Soriya Eng, 7, a camper, said she was excited for “all of it,” especially getting to play with her friend she’s known since preschool.

Eng and her fellow campers were barefoot on the wood floor as they twirled their colorful wands in the air and played freeze tag to the Little Mermaid song “Part of Your World.”

Danny Wallace, the Dance Center’s camp director, grew up performing in the studio and ended up tap dancing all over the word. He moved back to Santa Rosa to teach.

Last year, “we had to jump into the world of Zoom,” Wallace said. Kids were forced to learn how to dance at home — on tiled kitchen floors, carpeted living rooms, concrete garages and even the asphalt parking lot of the Dance Center — before they finally came back to the polished wood studio floor.

“We tried our best,” said Vicki Suemnicht, owner of the Dance Center. “Coming back in, it feels like we’re coming here for the first time. The energy coming back amazing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-521-5224 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

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