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‘Thank god’: Summer camps about to be approved in Sonoma County

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Summertime is approaching, but it may not bring the childlike whoops and parental sighs we’re accustomed to, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that has reset the societal clock.

Still, relief may be on the way for frazzled parents and stir-crazy kids alike. Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s public health officer, is expected this week to issue new rules allowing the return of summer camps, those very-American symbols of wholesome fun.

“Thank God,” said Meaghan Creedon, a Santa Rosa mom with a 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son who have made a tradition out of spending all summer, one day at a time, at Cloverleaf Ranch, a 160-acre time capsule hidden in plain view off Old Redwood Highway.

“I think as much as we as parents deserve a break — because we’re really working triple time, being teachers and running a house and working our jobs — I think the kids really deserve it. They’re suffering, too. They have no friends to play with. And we’re trying not to sit them in front of the TV every day,” she said.

The feeling of relief isn’t complete, though. Those camps that plan to operate in 2020 will see their numbers reduced by strict guidelines on social distancing and other safety measures. And some camps have canceled this summer’s schedule entirely, conceding the new hurdles are too high to clear.

That includes the city of Santa Rosa’s Recreation & Parks Department, which normally runs several dozen day camps that focus on everything from arts and sports to veterinary instruction and tabletop gaming, beyond more traditional nature experiences like Camp Wa-Tam and Camp Yu-Chi.

“Our camps are all outdoor camps. Typically, they take place in parks or pools,” said Kristi Buffo, marketing and outreach coordinator for Recreation & Parks. “Those settings, under the current health order, do not allow gatherings of any type.”

Buffo said the city is working to create new programs that follow current CDC guidelines for child care. There simply wasn’t time to execute anything closer to the old model.

“I’m trying to do math,” Buffo said. “Let’s just say there are thousands of children who come through our camp programs. In order for us to be prepared, to be staffed up properly and to have that staff trained, we needed to start all of that in April.”

The Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation hasn’t officially announced the cancellation of its annual summer program, Camp Tule. But that’s what all signs point to.

“It’s not seeming real feasible at this point,” said the foundation’s Christine Fontaine, who added that the group is looking at online alternatives.

Sonoma County is also planning a host of virtual camps. But unlike the city, the county is moving forward with real-life summer-camp plans, too. They will not be the usual popular, weeklong outings at Doran Beach (like Sea Squirts) and Spring Lake (like Discovery Camp), though.

Sandi Funke, programs manager at Sonoma County Regional Parks, said her office will be releasing a revised menu in perhaps a week. They are prioritizing families that had already booked spots, and especially those that receive need-based scholarships.

The county plans to use a “cohort-based model,” with smaller groups for longer periods of time — two three-week sessions, beginning July 6 and July 27. Funke is thrilled to be able to offer something to the children of Sonoma County, but feels the pain of lowered expectations.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

“It kills me,” she said. “Some of the camps were full. We build up to it all year. And I just know summer camps make such a difference in students’ lives, physically and emotionally, and in their ability to love and care for the Earth.”

The cohort model that Funke described is a fundamental element of the new normal for summer camps. The idea is to create small groups of children and staff that stay together throughout a camping session, not mingling with other separate groups. It’s a way to approximate the traditional camp experience, minus the underwear raids and full-group singalongs.

Every camp in America must follow local safety protocols, of course. But most counties, including Sonoma, are taking their lead from the Centers for Disease Control, which in turned worked with the American Camp Association and the YMCA to draft guidelines.

Cloverleaf Ranch recently sent an email to all prospective parents with a detailed rundown of its new regulations. They go further than the CDC’s suggestions, but give a good indication of what parents can expect of camps this summer. Cloverleaf’s rules include:

Groups of no larger than 12.

At least 6 feet of distance between group members and anyone not in their cohort.

Staggered group times for the pool and horseback riding, among other activities.

No kitchen operation; children must bring lunch and snack every day.

Temperatures checked upon arrival.

Accessible masks for all adults at all times.

After a solid week of analysis, Cloverleaf Ranch owner Shawna DeGrange and her core staff determined that with a little extra effort, they could continue all of the camp’s activities except one — the zip line, which requires a technician who would have to flit from one group to another.

The biggest change is the cancellation of Cloverleaf Ranch’s resident program. It will be the first summer in the camp’s 72-year history without sleepovers. This was a painful concession for DeGrange, the third-generation owner who spent many starry nights at the ranch as a child.

Parents like Creedon not only submitted to the stricter rules. They leapt at the chance.

Creedon sells real estate for a living. Because her livelihood depends on having no extended downtime, she and her husband, architect Jonathan Ramos, went on full lockdown when Sonoma County’s stay-at-home order began. They didn’t go to the grocery store for 45 days. They didn’t get takeout. All of their food was delivered to the door by Costco. The children, daughter Brooklyn and son Hudson, had no play dates.

And as it turned out, Creedon and Ramos both have had more work than ever. Throw in supervision of the kids’ Zoom sessions and thick homework packets and, well, they love the little squirts, but this is a family in desperate need of some summer separation.

They figure they can abide by the new rules, and private summer camps believe they, too, can adapt. But it all begs a question. The camp experience has always delivered, among other things, a sense of escape for children. It’s a place for controlled chaos, where young people can go slightly wild and push the usual bounds of parental supervision.

In the Summer of Coronavirus, can kids find this sense of freedom?

Linda McDonald thinks they can. She owns McDonald Ranch, off Guerneville Road between Santa Rosa and Forestville, and she expects her summer program to begin June 1 with drastically reduced numbers. McDonald noted that her charges will still get to ride horses and feed baby goats and play in the dirt.

“We’re certainly not gonna be offering any cooking classes,” she said. “We’ll be social distancing and lining things out in terms of where to eat and sit. It’s gonna dampen the spirit a little bit, but I think kids will enjoy it.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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