Orange County summer camps reflect and learn from 2021, and look forward to a new summer.
For many Orange County summer camps, 2021 was “more normal.” And while the early part of 2022 has proved challenging due to the highly contagious Omicron variant, camp directors are hopeful for the summer ahead.
“We’re keeping the arts alive and well, come COVID or high numbers,” said Stephen Zygo, founder and director of Acting Academy for Kids in Mission Viejo and Irvine. “Masks have proven to be effective and we have seen over these past two years that kids need an outlet. They are drowning in too much screen time at home.
“Our camps take safety very seriously. My wife, Maggie Zygo, and co-founder of Acting Academy, has Stage 4 immune system cancer and her type of cancer makes her the most high risk and vulnerable in the community. When I am at camp experiencing the joy of musical theater with our students, she is always my first and primary concern. Raising our two sons — 5 and 7 — with her by my side is critical and that is my mindset for my staff and the actors that join our award-winning camps.”
Many OC summer camps pivoted from the shock of 2020 with a strong focus on safety for 2021, hosting modified versions of their camps last year. Though not completely back to normal, many of these camps nonetheless reported an enthusiastic return by campers and their families.
“All camps were sold-out and had waitlist,” said Wendy Marshall, president and CEO of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. “The summer was as focused on social development as enrichment and prepared the kids to enter the school year.”
Summer of 2021
Rising Above Disabilities’ RAD Camp hosted a fully remote summer camp in 2020, according to co-founder Meghan Clem. But that gave them time to get ready for the next year.
“We were much more prepared and able to further customize our programming for 2021,” said Clem. “This time around, our RAD Remote Program offered a primarily virtual week-long summer camp experience with a few in-person events due to COVID-19 guidelines at that time. We partnered with various organizations to offer 30 virtual activities via Zoom throughout the week and loved seeing our campers, their families and our volunteers interact online and offline. We are proud to share that we served 124 families from 52 cities in California and 149 volunteers served a total of 1,638-plus hours the week of our program.”
Diana Dizon, president of Bionerds, which offers science programs and camps for kids in Orange County, said for 2021, their teachers and students had to fill out COVID health questionnaires daily.
“No one with any COVID symptoms could enter the classroom,” she said. “We took contactless temperature for everyone before camp daily. Wearing masks indoors was mandatory. Social distancing was enforced as much as possible by placing tables apart from each other. We routinely sanitized our hands, tables, chairs and tools used in class. We modified our activities to individual activities instead of group interaction ones. We digitalized our equipment with a screen instead of shared ones. We also limited students’ capacity in the classroom and placed more staff to supervise the students.”
She said they had a couple of incidents where the students had to withdraw due to COVID-19 or other illnesses, but no one was sick or infected with COVID while attending their camps.
“Many families were still cautious of having their children do camps in person, but they were also mentally ready to be out of their homes,” said Dizon. “We had to keep reassuring families that we placed many safety restrictions, and it has always been our priority. Another challenge was constantly reminding our young students that we were still in the pandemic era and their actions mattered, such as social distancing and proper mask-wearing. Staffing scheduling was another challenge due to the long quarantine period after traveling, or when they had to stay home when they were not feeling good, just in case it was due to COVID-19. On top of that, we had to place additional staff per site to accommodate extra supervision in class.”
But it was worth it.
“Being able to offer our camps in person was already a win itself,” Dizon said. “Even though there were restrictions in place, we still could do what our teachers and students love in person. We were very proud of them following instructions and guidelines in camps to make our summer camps last year successful. Our students were young at age, but we were impressed by how much they understood the importance of following guidelines. The students and their families contributed so much to the camps’ success.”
Amy Reda, co-owner of Endless Sun Surf School, which holds lessons and camps at the Newport Beach Pier, said they didn’t hold any summer camps in 2020 — a first since 1963.
“2021 summer surf camps went great,” said Reda. “Our camps were incredibly fun. Instructors were stoked to be back at work. And students were overjoyed to be back at our camps. Our camps sold out before they began. And we had long waitlists every week.”
Though she said they faced some of the same challenges as other small businesses.
“There did seem to be a shortage of workers,” she said. “And lots of folks came out of the woodwork, running illegal un-permitted surf camps that we had to compete with — which is very tough because they don’t pay for the same overhead that we do: permits, insurance, workers’ comp, even taxes, etc. However, we had a great summer and we were so happy to be back in the water with our students and instructors, doing what we love to do, and making people happy.”
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Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, which hosts a few different summer camps — including Five Days of Broadway, Summer at the Center for high-risk youth and Studio D: Arts School for All Abilities — also had a more normal experience for 2021.
Bethany Umbach, senior manager of Education Programs, said that Five Days of Broadway moved from a virtual camp setting in 2020 to having in-person camp for 2021.
“Everyone, including campers, faculty and staff was so excited to be together again to experience the power of the performing arts,” said Umbach. “The camp sold out and we received great feedback from parents and campers alike.”
Five Days of Broadway is a camp for middle and high school students taught by Broadway and industry professionals.
“We moved from a full-day camp to two, half-day sessions to allow for fewer students in each class. We kept students in smaller groups and in the same space for their camp day to lower any risk of exposure,” said Umbach. “Masks were required to be worn at all times and we encouraged distancing whenever possible. We had enhanced cleaning protocols between classes and camp sessions. All staff and faculty were fully vaccinated.”
Mindy Schwartz, education director for Environmental Nature Center’s (ENC) Nature Camps in Newport Beach, said that even though they still needed to follow COVID protocols in 2021, they made up for those limitations with creative, fun programming.
“We had a fantastic staff that brought positivity and delight to the campers each and every day,” said Schwartz. “The obvious challenge of running camp during a pandemic are all the ‘what if…?’ scenarios that come up. When a staff member felt even slightly under the weather, we had to take that seriously and keep them home. This put a major strain on our teaching team and we constantly needed to bring in extra staff and interns to fill in. Despite those challenges, we felt this past summer was a really meaningful time of self-discovery, cooperative play, and friendship-building for children that had suffered a real loss during a year spent mostly at home.”
Schwartz said they had one staff member and one camper test positive for COVID during their eight weeks of camp — at separate times. Starting in fall 2021, the ENC required all staff and volunteers who interact with the public to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
“Over the past 18 months the popularity of our camps has been growing,” she said. “Our 2021 Winter Camp sold out on the first day that registration opened.”
Looking Forward to 2022
Though it’s difficult to predict exactly where things will stand come summer 2022, plans are underway for a season of camps.
Marshall said that this summer will mark the Ocean Institute’s 41st year of camps. She said they continually monitor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state guidelines as they pertain to COVID-19 and how they affect camps, and they will adjust accordingly.
“We learned that the strength of our programming and talented staff can carry the day, despite adjustments for COVID,” she said. “It is easy to get pulled down by what you ‘can’t’ do, but we focused on what we could offer, and the children had phenomenal experiences.”
Reda said that for this summer, families can still expect a strong focus on safety at camp.
“Everything we do is outdoors, so that is helpful,” she said. “If instructors are sick with COVID, they will still have to quarantine at home like before. And we will continue to wash shared equipment, as we always do.”
She said that last year showed them that demand is strong.
“We learned that a lot of students want to participate in our camps,” Reda said. “We’ve created a second camp in the later part of the day to hopefully help with that. However, our camps still might sell out again. And we want folks to really be prepared for that and to sign up early — registration opens March 10.”
Umbach said there were definitely lessons learned from last year’s Five Days of Broadway camp at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
“Firstly, masks are not a deal-breaker — we can do camp with masks,” she said. “Also, we took longer breaks to give our HVAC system time to ventilate, but found that having longer breaks was helpful and better for our campers, so we will keep these longer breaks regardless — 10 minutes instead of five between classes. While the half-day camp worked just fine, we learned the campers really still want more, so provided it is safe to do so, we hope to return to a full-day camp this year. We created student cubbies to help them distance their belongings/water, but this also worked so well, we will keep it going forward. Lastly, we learned even with all the protocols, campers need to get together in person and enjoy the arts, so it is worth all of the work that goes into the health and safety protocols.”
Schwartz said that the ENC learned from last year that it’s important to have more staff members and interns than you think are necessary.
“The ‘buffer’ is essential in filling in those gaps when unexpected things come up,” she said. “Our camps will continue as they have since they started in 1977 — but completely outdoors, following whatever protocols are in place by the state of California at the time. We will still offer the same nature-based curriculum that we have for the last 45 years.”
Zygo said the Acting Academy for Kids learned how to safely and effectively bring back audiences, and reaped the benefits.
“The kids really needed it and it brought back the joy into the theater,” he said. “We treated the experience like a live studio audience by front-loading the families to understand that we were videoing the production, so their interaction as audience members was a critical element to the taping. It went great and we may continue with this strategy this summer.”
Scottie “Grey Squirrel” Roach, executive co-director of Camp James at Newport Dunes said that after doing this job for more than 30 years, she’s still looking forward to the first day of camp.
“We need to be ready to adjust as things evolve with the pandemic,” said Roach. “In 2020 and 2021 we had plans, and had to pivot as changes and regulations adjusted. Parents were and are on board — and knew when signing up that we have plans in place and sometimes plans have to adjust — with knowing that things may change as needed. Sometimes change can be unsettling, but kids are resilient and are motivated to come to camp and have fun.”
She said they are one of the few day camps that actually operated in both 2020 and 2021.
“We have countless emails and thank-you messages from parents who just wanted their kids to have fun and play with their peers,” she said. “Our staff worked so hard to provide a good summer to the kids who really needed the kind of outdoor experience we provide. … We will be operating this summer with gratitude to the families that trust us with their kids.”
Clem said that throughout the pandemic, they learned that RAD is not just a place.
“It is a feeling we all share,” she said. “If the last year has shown us anything, it is that RAD does not need to be in person for us to be able to come together as a community. Regardless of where we are, if we are together, it’s RAD! This commitment to rising above and maintaining love and respect for one another is what fuels our community and will make us feel right at home at our new summer camp location: Vanguard University.”
By Jessica Peralta