The last few months have been tough for kids and parents alike.
Schools were shut down back in mid-March, as were many businesses. Families everywhere found themselves hunkered down together at home while the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the globe.
School took place in front of a computer screen in the living room. Business meetings were held over Zoom from bedrooms. Play dates were off limits, sports seasons were canceled, family vacations and day trips to nearby attractions were impossible.
Next to nothing has been normal.
But now, as the calendar creeps into June, a light is on the horizon. Pennsylvania, like many other states, is slowly starting to emerge from its coronavirus hibernation.
And a long-standing summer tradition is, at least partially, going to take place.
All of Pennsylvania entered at least the yellow phase of Gov. Wolf's reopening plan on Friday. That means summer day camps and playground programs are now allowed to operate.
That includes in Berks County, which moved from red to yellow on Friday.
It won't be a normal season for camps and playground programs across the county, with fewer options available for families. Since the summer situation was an uncertainty until only very recently, many programs have already announced they won't open this year.
That includes summer playground programs in Spring and Cumru townships; day camps at Hawk Mountain Scout Reservation and Daniel Boone Homestead; day and overnight camps at South Mountain YMCA; and Berks County Parks Department summer programs.
Some others are hoping to open, but still working out the details.
Chris Winters, executive director of the Olivet Boys and Girls Club, said official plans aren't finalized but he's hoping summer programs can start July 6.
"We continue to review and analyze the evolving guidelines from the state of Pennsylvania and the CDC to determine the feasibility of day camp operations," he said. "As always, the health and safety of our children, their families and our staff remain our top priority and will drive any decisions moving forward. Any modifications to our current plan will be communicated as soon as they occur."
Daphne Klahr, executive director of the Reading Recreation Commission, likewise said a plan is still in the works.
"Summer plans have not been completely finalized," she said. "The rules for allowing playgrounds and camps to happen only rolled out (May 22), and we are trying to figure out how that will look this summer. Summer will definitely be modified, but how much we don’t know."
Those that are definitely opening will do so differently, following new guidelines from the state Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make sure they do so safely. Here's what officials from three had to say about their plans.
Reading Public Museum
John Smith, director and CEO of the Reading Public Museum, said there are a lot of families that rely each year on summer programs for child care or for enrichment opportunities.
With kids being stuck mostly at home the past few months, and many parents preparing to head back to work, both are especially true this year.
"It was critical for us to open up," he said.
Smith spent the weeks prior to Wolf's announcement that summer programs would be allowed to open lobbying for just that. He spoke to elected officials, pleading his case.
There were other counties near Berks that were further ahead on the reopening path, he said, and they would be opening camps and playground programs.
"We said, 'Listen, it's one thing to be closed down for a competitive reason. But we can't send the message that it's OK to go some place in Lancaster and it's not safe to come here,'" he said.
Smith said the museum usually starts its summer camp program, which is made up of week-long sessions focused on different science or art themes, the week after the Fourth of July. Because of the extenuating circumstances parents and kids are facing this year, the opening week has been moved up to today.
Enrollment for the sessions will be limited, with about 25 kids per week. They will be split among four adult educators, and each group will remain intact for the entire week to help keep down the number of people everyone interacts with.
Social distancing will be maintained as much as possible, Smith said, and staff will wear masks. The kids are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.
There will also be regular hand washing and an effort to keep the facility as spotless as possible. The museum has partnered with Penn State Health St. Joseph’s hospital to help oversee reopening procedures. Each week of camp will begin with a Monday morning tutorial given by a medical professional from the hospital to campers about the virus and how to be safe while at camp.
Smith said the size of the museum, including its expansive outdoor property, makes for an ideal location for a summer camp amid a pandemic.
"We have 60,000 square feet of exhibit space, so the kids will have a lot of space," he said, pointing out that the museum remains closed to the public.
Smith said he and his staff were very concerned about safety as they pushed to open up for summer camps and have spent a lot of time preparing. The result, he said, is a pretty safe environment.
"We're very comfortable," he said. "You can't walk 20 feet without hitting a sanitation station. Everything gets wiped down, we did a training in March with a professional cleaning firm.
"In a lot of ways we are a much safer place to come to as a family than other places that have been available throughout the pandemic. Parents have been taking kids to grocery stores, to public parks. Public places are mob scenes on nice days."
The museum has been taking applications for its summer camps, and, showing how in-demand they are, have already sold out many of their sessions.
At Berks Nature, the start of summer camps has been pushed back this year, but they will be held.
Kim Murphy, executive director, said camp season normally starts June 8.
"We felt like we needed to let parents know what our plans were, so we told them we would make a decision one month in advance," she said.
On May 8, however, things still looked grim.
"At that time there was no hope of our region being in the yellow phase," Murphy said.
So, Berks Nature canceled the first three weeks of camp, holding out hope that later sessions could still be held. With Berk's move to yellow Friday, that's now possible.
Murphy said week-long day camp sessions will begin July 6.
Of course, she said, accommodations have to be made to deal with COVID-19. They have reduced the numbers of campers for each session by 30%, welcoming two groups of 10 each week.
Staff and campers will wear masks, she said, with campers being allowed to take mask breaks if they're outside and able to social distance by at least 10 feet. Campers and staff will also have daily temperature checks.
"This has really been a very difficult decision, in part because there has not been a lot of guidance until just the last week or so," Murphy said of opening this summer. "We realize that some parents won't want their kids to wear a mask. But we want to keep everyone as safe as possible, so if they don't want them wearing a mask they shouldn't send them."
A benefit for the Berks Nature camps, Murphy said, is that they're traditionally held mostly outdoors. That makes keeping the kids safe from coronavirus easier and gives them much-needed exposure to nature.
"Obviously, we advocate people being outside as much as possible, and I think with the pandemic quarantine a lot of people have read that as to stay inside," she said. "We're concerned that kids haven't even gotten outside to play or explore at all. The majority of our campers are outside all day, it's probably a much safer environment for our campers."
Murphy also said she realizes the importance summer programs play in the world of child care.
"It's pretty hard to reopen the economy if people have to go back to work and can't funnel their children somewhere," she said.
Murphy said the reaction to Berks Nature being open for summer camp has been immediate. Before the end of May they were already nearly at capacity for all their weeks.
Summer camps at Body Zone Sports and Wellness Complex will take place, thanks to some heavy lifting.
"Basically, we had to re-gear our entire approach to everything," said Ted Kolva, general manager. "It's like opening a brand new business."
Camps will begin today, Kolva said, with new protocols in place. Campers and staff will have their temperatures checked, and staff will be required to wear masks. Campers will stay in the same group all week with the same counselors.
Everyone will wash their hands frequently, Kolva said, and Body Zone has purchased a mister that sprays disinfectant around the facility twice a day.
Body Zone has canceled its traditional Wednesday field trips, which in the past had taken kids to the likes of the Crayola Experience in Easton or Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Instead, campers will be treated to other fun activities like giant, inflatable slides.
But perhaps the biggest safety feature Body Zone has to offer is the same as Reading Public Museum.
"The one thing we have is we have a lot of space," Kolva said of the 160,000-square-foot facility that will still be closed to the public as camps begin.
Kolva said the facility also has a lot of outdoor space and parking lots to take advantage of, as well as the nearby Gring's Mill Recreation Area.
"We are trying to utilize all the space we have," he said. "Physical activity and interaction with their peers are so important to kids. We wanted to do whatever we could to make sure we could provide a place for that."
Kolva said that about half of Body Zone's campers are there as a form of child care, providing another important reason for camp to take place. He said he knows some parents will feel comfortable sending their kids there and others won't.
But having the option is critical, he said. And giving kids a chance to just be kids, amid all the stress and dislocation COVID-19 has caused, is a must.
"We just want kids to be able to run and scream and laugh," he said. "We want them to have some sort of normalcy."