Despite a few COVID scares, Ontario camps are having a successful summer with extra precautions

When COVID first hit, summer camps went from an integral part of many childhoods to a non-essential service. It was a sudden shift that left children and parents wanting for the sense of community and inclusivity camp experiences provide.

Today, summer camps in Ontario are at the mercy of the shifting landscape of the pandemic. While many camps are adapting to stay afloat, COVID outbreaks at two camps in early summer left a sour taste in parents’ mouths. Still, camps across the province are cautiously soldiering on with programming and seeing positive results.

A COVID outbreak during training week

Camp Wabanaki, run by the YMCA, was one of the camps that had a COVID outbreak this summer. The outbreak occurred during the staff training week, with at least eight staff members testing positive.

According to Mike Ennis, interim CEO for the camp, the Simcoe Muskoka health unit was informed and the decision was made to cancel the camp’s first session. On July 15, programming resumed and Camp Wabanaki has been COVID-free since.

“We were able to place almost 60 per cent of those campers back into another session, so I think, right away, that shows how keen parents were,” says Ennis. He adds that communication with parents this summer has been especially crucial. “There is no question in COVID that you ramp that up even more. We’ve had a full communication plan and it seems to be working really well.”

The outbreak gave Camp Wabanki a chance to work with the local health unit and double down on safety measures.

“There’s cohorting, there’s masking in areas, if kids have symptoms or they test positive obviously they are taken out of the camp environment,” says Ennis. “I think we were all trying to figure out what camps are going to look like in a COVID environment. Sitting here today, we’ve definitely got a better handle on what that looks like.”

For Ennis, the goal has been to give campers a positive experience, despite the rocky start.

“We were absolutely thrilled in working with the health unit, the parents, the families, the communities to see kids back at camp. It has been long overdue,” he says. “If you ever wonder what the value of camp is, just go without it for two years. And we’ve been incredibly, incredibly happy to bring it back.”

Camp Bickell also reported a COVID outbreak earlier in July that had parents concerned about a lack of communication. The camp did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In-person programming is back, but it’s not business as usual

Bandology is a non-profit band camp that offers several camps geared at school-age children.

“One thing we found in the pandemic is that playing musical instruments and singing is dangerous because you expel air, so we haven’t run a band camp using wind band instruments for the past two years,” says Lisa Michaels, Executive Director for the camp. “We have been following very carefully with what the Ministry of Education and public health units have been allowing.”

This summer, kids are able to play all instruments at Bandology camps and they play unmasked.

“Many kids over the past two years haven’t been able to play band instruments, especially kids in Grade 7 and 8, which is when they start learning,” she says. “So, our registrations are totally down.”

With the threat of COVID still looming, it is a condition of the camp that all directors, staff, clinicians, music mentors, teenagers playing in the wind band camp and even guests are fully vaccinated. In addition, as much programming as possible takes place outdoors, weather permitting.

“There’s active fresh air and it’s helping with the distancing part, but it also allows the rooms that we were in to be empty, and for HVAC circulation to refresh them,” says Michaels.

These are standard measures but are proving to be effective so far. Bandology is yet to have a COVID outbreak or scare.

Extra measures to protect immunocompromised campers

At Camp Quality, a national camp for children affected by cancer, health and safety measures are much more rigorous to protect immunocompromised campers. On top of vaccine requirements and mandatory masking when indoors, Camp Quality requires all attendees to take an antigen test before coming on-site.

“There are still campers and camper families who are afraid to to go to camp right now, particularly now with the seventh wave,” says Fiona Fisher, the national executive director for the camp. “We’re probably operating at 50 per cent capacity of what we would have been pre-pandemic.”

Even with health and safety being top priorities, scares are bound to happen. In a few instances this summer, Camp Quality campers presented with COVID symptoms. Children with symptoms are sent home, cabin groups are isolated until a negative COVID test is confirmed, and parents are immediately informed.

Bearing in mind that these things might happen, Camp Quality has protocols in place to ensure that cabins that have to isolate still have a great experience. Affected cabins become “super pods.”

“They become VIP campers. We put a red carpet in front of their cabin and they get very special treatment,” says Fisher.

Making sure that all campers get to enjoy consistent, captivating programming is especially important given the past few years.

“Life has been pretty regimented during COVID,” says Fisher. “When a child then becomes part of a super pod and there’s a change in plan, sometimes it’s hard for campers to get used to that change. But the kids have been really good about it. And our volunteers have worked really hard to ensure that every camper is having a great time.”

Thankfully, Camp Quality has been COVID-free so far, and parents and children are happy to get back to in-person programming.

Andrea Bender sent her children — 12-year-old Nathan and 10-year-old Emily — to Camp Quality Northwestern Ontario in July. She has good things to say about the precautions in place, communication of camp faculty and quality of programming.

Each child was assigned an adult volunteer to provide one-on-one support to the camper. In addition, parents could find out what was going on at camp through frequent social media posts or by texting the director.

“I don’t think I was too concerned about COVID because they had so many safeguards in place,” says Bender.

This was not Nathan and Emily’s first Camp Quality experience, but it was their first time participating in-person.

“We had the option this year of doing virtual or in-person and we jumped at the in-person just because we knew it’d be a different experience and it would let them meet the kids that they have been seeing online,” says Bender. “It gave my husband and me a break from having the kids at home and dealing with any kind of cancer things… which we haven’t had in three years.”

Checks by the Ontario Camps Association are underway

The Ontario Camps Association (OCA), a non-profit leadership entity serving around 450 member camps, allows camps to get accredited with the OCA to access mentoring, marketing resources and educational workshops.

“An accredited camp membership — it means that they are adhering to over 600 health and safety standards,” says Joy Levy, executive director for the OCA. “We have worked directly with the Ministry of Health in delivering three rounds of rapid antigen tests to member camps. [That] began in June. The total number in the August delivery is somewhere in the high 70,000s.”

The OCA does regular check-ins at member camps to ensure high standards for health and safety are being observed. This involves a virtual meeting where an OCA visitor will go through a compliance check-list with the camp. The in-person check-in that follows confirms best practices are in use.

“The camps, I applaud them on how they have moved forward in each scenario, in adapting and pivoting and bringing unique ideas forward,” says Levy.

“Is there COVID at camp? More than likely. I don’t have a crystal ball,” says Levy. But in her opinion, the benefits of camp outweigh the risks.

“Camp is about fun. It’s about healthy child development. It’s about learning lifelong skills, learning new skills, making new friends,” she says. “We hear about mental health and the impact it has taken on teachers and on children. Those children come to our camps. Whether they’re in a tech camp and playing with robots or whether they’re paddling a canoe, they’re doing something that’s going to feed into their mental health. I’m optimistic that, as we continue to move through the pandemic, camps are one of the pieces that will help not only the kids, but the staff as well get through this.”

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO