three little girls walk on a trail wearing masks and waving to the camera
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco day camp kids on a hike (Photo/Courtesy JCCSF)

Local JCC day camps have successful summer navigating Covid

UPDATED Sept. 2 at 2:30 p.m. to reflect new information from Addison-Penzak JCC.

Summer camp during a pandemic? It may have sounded impossible, but Bay Area JCCs that took up the challenge are reporting major successes.

Juggling health and safety protocols, complicated logistics, parental concerns and children’s desires to get out of the house and have fun, directors of the day camps say that things went even better than expected — establishing both a level of confidence and a road map for the regular school year.

The Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto ran the largest program, J-Camp, with 237 grade-school kids in 20 groups for four weeks, and 58 children in what was actually summer preschool but was treated like a camp.

The JCC of San Francisco was not far behind, with 252 day-campers from preschoolers through age 12.

In the South Bay, the Addison-Penzak JCC enrolled more than 150 children in a pair of three-week sessions, each filled to capacity at 60 kids. The Los Gatos center ran a five-week session for preschoolers, plus a K-8 camp, and also added a two-week extension at the end.

The JCC East Bay hosted 48 campers in Berkeley.

One of the biggest challenges was “planning and trying to anticipate a lot of physical movement through the space, and choreographing that,” said David Green, a chief program officer at the JCCSF, where the camp served about one-fourth the number of kids it did in 2019.

All of the JCCs restricted the number of kids they hosted, due to space constraints. Following official health guidelines — no more than 12 children and two counselors per group — JCCs kept cohorts separate, each with its own designated areas indoors and out.

Two of the JCCs each reported a single case of a positive Covid-19 test.

At the Oshman Family JCC, it occurred during the final session of the summer, said Dave Rosenfeld, director of youth and teens.

Due to privacy concerns, he declined to say whether it was a camper or counselor. The infected person had been sent home in the early part of a week after being exposed to a family member with Covid-19. That person then was tested and received results over the weekend, after which they informed the camp of a positive result. In turn, camp officials relayed that information to staff and families in the cohort, as well as to all camp staff and families. That cohort then was told to stay home until Thursday, a decision based on how long its members had been exposed to the individual who tested positive, and the classroom they had used was shut down for a few days.

Campers and counselors (including the person who had tested positive), once cleared via testing, were able to return for the last few days of camp.

The OFJCC consulted with the Santa Clara County Health Department and its own dedicated Covid-19 task force to assess the situation and take appropriate steps.

“It was a great test of our systems and proof that, if procedures are followed, you can really be effective in minimizing any spread,” Rosenfeld reflected. “I believe that the families, having observed the seriousness with which we took our health and safety procedures all summer, trusted our handling of the situation, and we received a ton of positive feedback about how it played out.”

The other positive Covid test was at the Addison-Penzak JCC’s preschool camp. Marking director Jenny Green told J. that “a person in one of the preschool camp groups tested positive for Covid-19 toward the end of the summer, resulting in us shutting down that person’s classroom and sending that group home for two weeks.” Camp fees were refunded to the families affected. The individual never got sick, and in fact tested negative the following day, Green reported.

In advance of opening their day camps, all of the JCCs reached out to parents — whether through virtual “town hall” meetings, emails or phone calls — to provide as much information as possible and to assure everyone that protocols were being followed.

“We found parents obviously concerned,” the JCCSF’s Green said. But parents also were “super interested in wanting their kids to do something fun and social. They were very trusting and cooperative with us,” he said.

Before the OFJCC summer session began, a two-week “dress rehearsal camp” was conducted for a small number of kids (children of staff members). Staff learned where to make “tweaks” in their plan — such as staggering drop-off and pick-up routines. ”It gave us confidence going in,” Rosenfeld said.

Handwashing, temperature checks and the constant sanitizing of surfaces were de rigueur.

a little boy and a little girl sit on the ground wearing masks playing
Preschoolers at the Addison-Penzak JCC summer day camp in 2020. (Photo/Courtesy APJCC)

Physical distancing was also part of the equation. That was easy enough at naptime, lunch and “meeting time,” noted Lauren Berman, director of the OFJCC’s Leslie Family Preschool. However, “It’s not really developmentally appropriate to have them physically apart from each other” at all times, she added.

As for masks, the little ones at Berman’s preschool “camp” weren’t expected to wear them (it was optional for ages 4 and under), but lots of children did anyway, she said.

During regular preschool in the fall, “we are strongly encouraging our 3- and 4-year-olds to wear a mask,” she added.

The crucial question for Berman going into the summer: Would preschoolers be scared of teachers in masks? To the staff’s surprise, when the kids arrived, they “walked outside, saw teachers in masks, and went to play,” Berman said. “They were so much less affected by masks than we thought they would be.”

At Camp Shalom in Los Gatos, “We went through many phases [of masking],” said Alix Davidson, Addison-Penzak’s youth and camp director, especially when “midway through summer, there were new guidelines.” As a result, most of the children wore masks all the time.

“It really wasn’t a fight,” Davidson said. “Kids are so adaptable. They really get it.”

Sam Cantrell, JCC East Bay associate director of camp and teen programs, credited parents for doing a “terrific job preparing their children for what to expect at camp. We also started each morning with a group sing-along song, ‘Mushuggeneh,’ with kids repeating the lyrics of 6 feet apart, masks on.”

And despite closed swimming pools, no contact sports, and other restrictions, kids got plenty of outdoor playtime at all of the venues.

The JCCSF even ran a sports camp, where some of the campers’ favorite activities were nature walks, dodgeball and “an obstacle course based on the game ‘Floor is Lava,’” Green said.

The JCCs mentioned in this article aren’t the only Bay Area entities that ran Jewish day camps this summer. Chabad, for example, operated Camp Gan Israel in several locations, and Camp Kee Tov ran scaled-back sessions in Berkeley. However, some JCCs decided to forgo in-person day camps this summer, as did all of the region’s Jewish overnight camps: URJ Camp Newman, Camp Tawonga, Camp Ramah of NorCal, Camp Be’Chol Lashon, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp and Eden Village West.

Given all the unknowns going into the summer of 2020 and the positive feedback afterward, the day camps that did operate provided lots of valuable takeaways.

“It really gave us an advantage going into the school year,” Rosenfeld said.

For example, there’s an OFJCC after-school program, Club J, that already has started, with more than 100 kids. “Just like camp, we have classroom cohorts,” Rosenfeld said. Also, for now, Club J’s hours are fluid, not just after school, since most kids are being schooled virtually under different schedules.

Also back in action is the JCCSF’s preschool system, which operates at three locations in San Francisco, and each is booked to capacity — although capacity this year is 80 percent of last year, and the children are in smaller groupings in more rooms. (The JCCSF after-school program, for grades K-5, is on hold for the time being.)

The APJCC’s preschool session has started, and there soon should be a program for school-age children, too, said Cyndi Sherman, the director of early childhood services. Sherman was heartened by how smoothly summer went. Children quickly adapted to the new rules, she said, and “were just so happy to be with other children.”

And while some staff felt anxious about all the new protocols, Sherman said, “once it actually happened, it wasn’t as onerous as it seemed.”

Said the OFJCC’s Rosenfeld: “Our staff was game, and we went through this as a team. I’m really proud of them.”

The JCCSF’s Green said camp was “a huge win.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.