Summer camps throughout the city and around San Antonio are preparing to be in full swing this year and are already seeing high enrollment, with many parents and kids ready to get another piece of normalcy back in their lives. 

Carisa Lopez Heiss’ 10-year-old daughter Olivia is one kid who can’t wait to get back to summer camp this year. Attending the summer day camps at the Barshop Jewish Community Center on Military Highway is practically a tradition for the Heiss family. When Heiss made the tough decision last year to cut back on the amount of time the kids spent at camp, Olivia was devastated to miss out on the time with her friends, Heiss said.

Last year, keeping the kids out of camp wasn’t even just about safety, Heiss said. She had just been laid off from her job because of the pandemic and wasn’t sure there would be money in the budget for camp. This year, she’s been able to land a new job and she feels confident about the COVID-19 safety precautions in place at the community center.

“We trusted their process, we trusted that they were following the right protocols, and if not it would have showed pretty quickly,” Heiss said about participating in the community center camps last year. “And so this year it was an easy decision to make.”

If enrollment at Camp Champions in Marble Falls is any indication, the Heiss family is not alone in their excitement to get back to camp this year. Erec Hillis, the boys camp director for Camp Champions, said spots are filling up fast at the residential camp, and this year is on track to set a record for the number of kids attending.

Last summer in the middle of the pandemic, attendance at Camp Champions was lower than a typical year, Hillis said, but the camp instituted a litany of safety protocols and made it through the summer without a single case of the coronavirus at the camp. 

The camp was able to accomplish that feat by essentially creating a bubble, along with some stringent precautions, Hillis said. Counselors were not allowed to leave the property even on days off, the campers were grouped in smaller numbers, and lots of hand-washing, mask-wearing, and temperature checks kept all the campers much healthier than even a typical year, Hillis said. 

“2020 was the healthiest summer we’ve ever had,” he said. “We had overall fewer stomach bugs and viruses and visits to the nurse.”

Hillis said final decisions haven’t been made yet about whether counselors will be allowed off the property this year, but he said the camp is trying to get all counselors and staff vaccinated before camp starts this summer. He said campers will also be required to take a coronavirus test the week before camp and again at camp on the day they arrive.

“Kids need camp this year more than ever, so we are going to take the steps necessary to make sure that they get to have camp in a healthy way,” Hillis said. 

Enrollment is also off to a fast and furious start for the summer day camps at the DoSeum, according to Richard Kissel, vice president of education at the DoSeum.

Registration opened just a few weeks ago, and already 50 percent of the spots are filled up, with some camps completely full, Kissel said.

The DoSeum opened for summer camps last year when the pandemic was far from controlled, and Kissel said the success of the protocols they put in place last year has helped staff feel confident that they have a good plan going into this year.

Some of the changes included teaching children how to “vampire cough” into their elbows, do the “mummy walk” with their hands in front of them to give each other space, and, of course, requiring masks and hand-washing, Kissel said. There are also fewer camps being offered this year, like last year, so classes are smaller and kids work more independently than they have in past camp settings.

“We’re going to continue to adapt as necessary just like we did with the onset of the pandemic,” Kissel said. 

Some of these new policies might not change for a while, Kissel said, but he plans to pay attention to health officials’ recommendations on when or if safety protocols can be loosened.

“We always say, ‘We’re here when you’re ready,’” Kissel said. “Some families are not going to be ready [for summer camp] until next year. We just want to be a resource for the city.”

Jennifer Esparza is one parent who is not ready to send her kid to summer camp yet. She said she decided to keep her 11-year-old daughter, Zoe, out of camp this year, a disappointment for her daughter, who loves to make friends and stay busy all summer. 

Before the pandemic, Esparza said Zoe had always attended some type of summer camp, whether it was a vacation Bible school or sports camp at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But Zoe has asthma and last year, when COVID-19 cases were still high, Esparza said she didn’t feel like camp was a safe option for her daughter.

This year, even though both Esparza and her husband are fully vaccinated, she said she still wants to hold off one more year on summer camps for Zoe. Instead, Zoe will spend her summer gardening at her grandparents’ property, going on road trips with her family, and getting plenty of social time with her friends, too, Esparza said. 

“Anything that’s outdoors, we’re more comfortable with, like going to the pool,” she said.

Esparza said she feels hopeful that by next spring with enough people vaccinated that she will feel comfortable with the idea of sending Zoe back to summer camp. 

As for Hillis over at Camp Champions, he’s hopeful that by the summer of 2022 his camp will begin to look more like a pre-pandemic camp, but he also thinks some things can be improved for future years.

“I would like to believe that we will take some of the things we’ve learned during this pandemic to continue having healthy summers,” Hillis said. 

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Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.