LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Summer camp is officially back in session, much to the delight of 7-year-old Arthur LaVelle and his friends who spent a recent day playing one of their favorite games.
Last summer, Arthur's parents decided to keep him home as COVID cases surged across Southern California even though his camp stayed open. And even with cases waning and vaccinations on the rise, his parents said sending him back this summer wasn't an easy choice, but they decided he needed the social interaction.
"It was tough," Jimmy LaVelle said. "It had been a long year at that point. Immediately his spirits were just night and day. He was just the happiest kid."
The pandemic has changed summer camps considerably. At Tom Sawyer Camp in Altadena, COVID protocols start before campers even enter the property.
The kids have their temperature checked as they get dropped off and then they sanitize and head over to play with their small groups.
"We know so much more today than we did last year this time about COVID," Sarah Fish, the camp's executive director, said. "It is daunting, and I would say our campers adjusted so well. When we found out face masks were required last summer, we thought, 'How are kids gonna do?' Zero problem."
The camp is in its 95th year, and Fish said even with restrictions lifting on June 15, there is still going to be limited capacity and, though most activities take place outdoors, masks will still be required for campers who are unable to get vaccinated in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
The camp will also increase its sanitation efforts with restrooms being cleaned after each use and breaks between activities so employees can clean and sanitize the equipment at every station.
But it's not just day camps that are making a comeback. Overnight and residential camps, like Catalina Island Camps, are also reopening to campers.
Catalina Island Camps was forced to remain closed last year, but is set to reopen this summer. Crowds will be smaller than in years past and fewer kids will be assigned to each cabin. The site will also adhere to strict cleanliness guidelines to keep both campers and staff safe.
"It feels really good," Tom Horner, camp director, said. "It feels really scary. We've been through a lot of change and we've been through a lot of anxiety for the last year, but we also know how important camp is for kids."
Parents said they could not stress enough how much their kids struggled last year without in-person school or camp.
"He had no desire to even go outside, and you could see his mood going further and further down," Dharimme Perera-Myers said of her son.
Joanna Warren Smith, a camp consultant, has worked with both parents and camp directors across the country.
"For children, camp is that opportunity, that rite of passage where they can discover who they are and what they can become," she said.
She said most camps were diligent about cleanliness and health regulations and, for parents questioning camp safety, she said be sure to ask questions.
"If they can attend a virtual open house or if they can actually go to the site, it certainly will help them in their decision-making process," Warren Smith said.
Parents said they were not taking the decision lightly and have talked with other parents who already had kids enrolled.
And while summer camp may seem like just a few weeks of activities for kids, the industry is big business. Nationwide, the camp industry generates more than $20 billion. Due to last summer's closures caused by the pandemic, about 900,000 camp workers lost their jobs and the bulk of that revenue disappeared.
The American Camp Association said that translated into $4.4 billion in lost wages.
And while local camps have started rehiring staff, the numbers are still lower than they have been in past years due to distancing protocols. So far, camp staff is not required to be vaccinated.
"There's been considerable excitement about the vaccines, especially for our staff, which changes the game completely," Horner said. "And now, maybe, for some of our campers, too."
Arthur and his friends are not yet old enough to get the vaccine, so they'll keep playing in their smaller cohorts with face coverings. His dad said it was a small sacrifice to be able to bring some normalcy for the summer.
"It's really good to just see a new group of friends being made," LaVelle said.
As for the camps, directors said they would continue to adjust as health protocols change.
The ACA has an online COVID-19 resource center to help guide parents and campers through health guidelines.
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