summer camp

Will this third wave cancel summer camp?

Camp directors are waiting for an answer from the provincial government

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.

It is not a good week to be a camp director.

Come to think of it, it’s not been a good year to be a lot of things, including a camp director.

I cry rarely. Last May after camps were closed for 2020, driving to camp, I started crying the moment I passed the Algonquin Park entrance. I cried hard for the 45 minutes till I got to camp.

That was a bit of a personal record; and it took many weeks for my mood to lift.

Where are the kids? Why am I not hearing shouts and laughter, tears and giggles? Where is the lovable bedlam that is the dining hall when there’s shouting and cheering and dancing? Why am I walking down the path alone?

This past fall — and winter — we thought for sure there’d be camp 2021.

It wasn’t ever going to be easy, but camp directors had webinars galore, Zooms till our eyes popped, conferences, health directives and an Everest of a learning curve about PCR and antigen testing, cohorting, sanitizing lifejackets and paddles.

Can we eat most meals outside, and how to put on a camp play? Will the camp bubble burst if staff leave for days off? How about food deliveries and dishwasher repairs? Laundry service and canoe trips?

We spent the winter and early spring feverishly engaged in planning for COVID risk reduction at camp.

Together, as a community, camp directors learned, worried and hoped. We lost sleep worrying about COVID invading our camps, but we believed we could take it on.

It would be different from what camp 2020 would have been, thanks in large part to the widespread availability of testing, and how much more we know now about COVID transmission.

We felt not exactly ready, but we knew we’d get there.

Then the third wave came for us.

Will there be camp this summer? The government has yet to tell us. It’s not as if they know. Despite their oft-stated belief that summer camp matters a lot to kids, clearly they’re in panic stations about the third wave. They can hardly give camps the go-ahead with case counts going ever higher.

And yet…and yet….

A camper parent said to me last week: “Every family on my street has a depressed child.” He didn’t mean a little blue. He meant serious mental health struggles.

I’m hearing about teenage girls waking up with panic attacks. We know that kids are struggling horribly, and that they need camp desperately. We know that getting out of the house and into nature, being with their friends, living in a cabin cohort without masking or distance, getting away from screens, are the antidote they so badly need.

But will it happen?

How long is the runway to camp? Some camps have already cancelled. Some are pivoting to family camp and cabin rentals. Because camp doesn’t spring full blown from the forehead of Zeus the day before the campers come. It normally takes 10 months to get ready for two.

How long can we wait?

If they tell us in May, we can make it work. Because camp people are adaptable. We shoot for the stars every day. If we can make magic for hundreds of children a summer, and foster their growth, introduce them all to their best selves, we can do this.

But we can’t wait longer than that. Every day all over Ontario, camp staff are bailing on their camp jobs because of the uncertainty of employment.

Parents are begging for answers, worrying about having to make other summer plans for their kids. Do we buy the hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment and supplies that camps need, or wait till the last minute when it won’t be available?

Thirty-three years ago, when I first became a camp director, I met Bruno Morawetz, who had left a cushy job as a tenured professor at U of T to run Camp Ponacka.

“Bruno,” I said, “why leave that job for camp directing?”

He laughed and said “Such an easy choice. I own a piece of every smile on every child’s face.”

Running a camp is a really hard job. And scary, because you hold so many young lives in your hand every day. You can make way more money much more easily doing other stuff. But you can’t own a piece of all those smiles.

So please. Bring our kids back to camp. They need those smiles. And so do we.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO