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.
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.
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.”
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.