Summer Camps during COVID-19

| July 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

CAMPERS, counselors and staff on the school field at Marlborough Summer School, July 2019. Photo by Bill Devlin

This summer, “camp” is not about the campsite. Traditions, like camp songs, arts and crafts, dress-up days or bonding with counselors, help to bring campers closer together, and it is activities like those that camps this summer are holding onto during this time of COVID-19 social-distancing regulations.

Los Angeles County announced that, effective June 12, day camps were allowed to reopen. Tumbleweed Day Camp, Sunny Days Kids Camp and other camps generally with access to large, open spaces have opened with significant safety procedures, while camps in mid-city Los Angeles have on the whole gravitated towards virtual summer offerings or suspending programming entirely.

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The turning point for Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts (YADA), according to Managing Director Lisa Gilbar, was when LAUSD announced on March 13 that schools were shutting down. YADA was nearing the end of its winter session, with some classes in dress rehearsal for live performances, when the Academy had to transition to an online setup, which it calls “Yadavision.” The Academy conducted its entire spring session over Yadavision and is continuing in the same way through the summer.

“The technology just isn’t there right now, to have live performances or even recorded performances, when you’re trying to do singing because of the lag,” Gilbar said. “With any internet, no matter what the speed is, there’s always going to be a delay, so because of that, we knew it was going to be really tricky. So, we figured out our own way of how to make that happen. When we dove in for spring, it was a trial by fire.”

YADA currently plans on running five virtual summer camps, each with multiple sessions. The staff members are staging “Les Miserables” and “Shrek the Musical,” as well as a Disney-themed program, Beatles camp and a musical improv retreat. YADA’s designers are giving directions to kids on how to make their own costumes, sets and props, and staff members will record audio clippings of campers singing. Campers will perform over Zoom, which will then be edited into a video to share with friends and family.

“Even though it’s not in the theater, it’s a sense of healing. It’s a sense of togetherness. It’s a sense of normalcy for these kids who love theater, and that’s something that YADA has always prided itself on,” Gilbar said. “This can be obviously a very isolating time for everyone right now, and so the fact that we’re able to bring theater to all of those kids, to the kids who might be isolated when we’re not isolating, but even more so now, to be able to bring them together and to have them unite over the shared passion of musical theater is a pretty amazing thing.”

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At the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), one of two summer offerings under its “Voices of History” program also includes putting on virtual performances. In partnership with the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, a group of rising middle and high schoolers listen to and work with survivors of the Holocaust to perform their stories. Students write, direct and act in the performances.

Because of the personal nature of the performance, Vice President of Education and Exhibits Jordana Gessler said she is hopeful that moving online gives students greater flexibility with set and stages that would not otherwise be possible with budget and timing constraints.

“We’ve always kept the settings very minimalistic and don’t use a lot of props because we really want the storytelling to come from the students themselves,” Gessler said. “We’ve actually never had costumes before, and the students are typically dressed in black. I think that that will align well with this digital platform. I actually see having digital be a positive, in a way, because you can change your backgrounds, so if we want to pull historic photographs that relate to the survivor stories, we can manipulate that. In a strange way, it can actually allow us a greater depth.”

The museum also hosted its Art and Resilience Workshop in partnership with Milken Community Schools from June 15 to June 19. Students worked with Holocaust survivors who identify as artists to create artwork based on survivor narratives and their own experiences. At the end of the program, there was a virtual gallery exhibition.

Wider reach

Traditionally the museum hosts a third program on film, but circumstances this summer made it impossible. Regardless, Gessler said that interest in their summer programs has been higher than usual and more geographically diverse, as travel to the museum in Pan Pacific Park is no longer necessary for students to attend the workshops.

Gilbar noted the same trend in enrollment at YADA and said it is one of the reasons YADA plans to keep its online programming long-term.

“Once we announced that we’re doing this online, the beauty of it is we are now able to reach kids everywhere,” Gilbar said. “We have kids from all over the country. We have kids Zooming in from Mexico. We’re open really to anyone, anywhere. They just have to deal with time differences if they’re too far. But, that opened up a whole new world for us, and that’s something we’re going to continue. Even when we go back in-person, hopefully in the fall, we’re going to continue our online Yadavision program.”

As part of Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust’s ongoing educational programs, the museum has been training elderly Holocaust survivors on how to use virtual platforms and mobile devices, including how to connect with students virtually over Zoom.

“It shows them that there are ways to connect with people despite social distancing and gives them that freedom to do so,” Gessler said. “Them learning how to use Zoom is not just so that they can talk to the museum. It’s so that they can talk to anyone and everyone, so that’s been an exciting thing for us. It’s very liberating for people to be able to use these platforms.”

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Next door, Pan Pacific Park usually runs a summer camp. According to a representative from the Pan Pacific Park staff, the park will not be offering camp this year because Mayor Eric Garcetti turned the facility into a temporary emergency homeless shelter. There is not currently an end date for this use. Kids looking to enjoy park facilities will have to find another park for the time being.

“Our play structures and fields are currently closed. We will open up all of these areas when the mayor decides it is appropriate. However, currently we have not been given any information as to exactly when that will happen,” the representative said in an email.

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Marlborough Summer School was forced to give up many of its athletic classes, as well, such as swimming, basketball and tennis, due to their shift to virtual summer school. However, the school is still running classes on fencing, self-defense and dance. Director of Summer School and Enrichment Programs Ida Dahan was in fact able to keep most of the camp’s typical class offerings by organizing delivery of a package for each camper with personalized materials for each class, including épées for fencing.

The camp usually employs 80 student-worker counselors and 80 teachers. Last year, the camp hosted approximately 520 campers, including incoming kindergarteners and first-graders in “Camp Mustang.” This summer, the camp is running with 345 campers, 55 teachers and four student-workers. The transition to online came largely at the expense of student-workers, whose roles were concentrated in swimming and athletics instruction, teacher assistant roles and general supervision, which are no longer relevant. Some student workers now will be helping in select Camp Mustang math and English classes.

Dahan said the advantage of Marlborough Summer School, regardless of whether it is online, or in person, is that students experience going to class with different teachers. Although they are not located on-campus and moving class-to-class as before, students can experience new kinds of instruction unlike at their elementary or middle schools. The same goes for young Camp Mustang campers, some of whom may not have experienced online learning yet.

“For kids who are going to be starting kindergarten, this is a good opportunity for them because it’ll be a chance for them to experience what it’s like to be online,” Dahan said. “The odds are, probably, at some point in the new academic year starting in September, we’ll be working remotely, so it will be good for them to do that.”

To foster a spirit of community and friendship, there are communal Zoom lunches encouraging campers to socialize and meet each other from their own homes. Zoom’s “break-out rooms” function allows for administrators to open grade-specific virtual spaces for campers to meet friends of their same age.

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JCamp at the Westside Jewish Community Center is following a similar set-up until at least July 2. Director of Camp and Family Programs Edana Appel, along with other JCamp staff members and a camp parent advisory committee, worked to create an online camp where campers could still choose their own specialty activities, from Minecraft engineering to Hebrew Immersion to theater. Campers received kits each week filled with supplies for their chosen specialty activity, also with new online-inspired options like YouTube production and photography. The virtual camp curriculum was formed with community-wide bonding as a priority.

“Each day, Virtual Camp will commence with a camp-wide ‘Morning Circle’ where campers will join our camp director in a fun morning of singing and dancing before breaking out into specialty activities led by expert instructors and our camp counselors,” Appel said in an email. “Campers will have the option of having lunch virtually with campers and counselors, and each afternoon the day will end with ‘Closing Circle’ so campers can say goodbye for the day and decompress after a day of virtual fun.”

JCamp has tentative plans to open in-person for the second half of the summer, from July 6 to August 21, in compliance with developing protocols from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

A societal need

Sustaining the community and culture of camp despite the evident challenges of the pandemic have been at the forefront of summer camp set-ups this year. Directors of summer camps in particular have been tasked with finding ways to keep kids connected, and as LAMOTH’s Gessler puts it, filling a societal necessity during this period of physical isolation.

“Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is really serving an important social need at this time,” Gessler said. “We’ve seen an increase the last few years in racism and antisemitism and hate. I think that the fact it’s increasing, or now since COVID, it’s so important for us to ensure that our programs and our mission are accessible to as many people as possible. We’ve seen a really great response from the people who are engaging with us, and that’s something that we really are looking forward to continuing.”

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