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Children’s camps cancelled or restricted by COVID-19 could mean a bleak summer for kids, parents

It was supposed to be Mason Remigio’s first-ever summer camp experience.

The five-year-old’s parents signed him up for several City of Toronto-run half-day camps recommended by the school he was going to be attending in September. When Toronto’s mayor announced their cancellation last week, Mason’s mom, Kelly Abdelhay, was disappointed but not surprised.

“I totally support it,” she said. “I don’t think there’s really a way to separate five-year-olds or to properly explain to them social distancing.”

Still, she’s saddened that the kindergartner, who’s already been at home for three months, won’t get to experience what was her favourite part of growing up — at least not yet.

Five-year-old Mason Remigio from Toronto was signed up for his first day camps this summer. But his family’s plans were cut short when the City of Toronto cancelled city-run day camps earlier this month. (Kelly Abdelhay)

“The wacky dancing in the rain and hoping for thunder; those are camp experiences and camp memories,” she said. “When I think of my summertime as a child, those are the things I remember.”

But it looks like many Canadian kids will have to wait before they can make similar memories.

Earlier this week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the cancellation of the province’s overnight camps, a decision a number of other provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta, had already made.

Ford said day camps could be back in July and August, if infection rates continue to go down and the public health authorities give their blessing.

But looking at the stringent health and safety protocol for day camps issued by Alberta, it becomes clear that not all day camps will have the staffing or space needed to continue operating. 

The rules say groups must be limited to 10, counting both staff members and children. The groups mustn’t interact with each other, and all playground equipment must be disinfected after use by each group.

Quebec, which just announced its rules for reopening day camps later in June, is looking to quickly hire twice as many counselors as before to comply with the new required ratio of camp staff to children.

‘Families come to depend on it’

Then there are those camps attached to big institutions, such as the perennial favourites at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) or the Ontario Science Centre. Their immediate future is uncertain partially because the buildings that contain them are still shuttered.

Kiron Mukherjee has been working at the ROM since he was a teen camp counsellor. In the last seven years, he’s been the kids’ co-ordinator and camp director there.

The museum recently placed him, along with more than 200 other staff, on temporary leave, but his passion for his “dream job” and the significance of camps in the lives of Canadian families remains. 

“I think families come to depend on it, and it’s not just like, ‘Oh I get to get rid of my kids for a day and they go off somewhere.’ But kids have a summer life: you have a life at school, you have a life at home and then you have your life at camp.”

Kiron Mukherjee (right, with fairy wings) poses with a young campgoer during Royal Ontario Museum’s Summer Club in 2019. (Kiron Mukherjee)

He says a particular loss for kids will be camp friendships, based around shared passions like dinosaurs, soccer or music.

For the kids, this is an emotional, deep wound really that’s been opened.-Simon Wolle, executive director, Jewish Camp Council of Toronto/Camp Northland

“And so you have these friendships that form through day camps, through overnight camps, through summer camps, that aren’t being reunited again, right?” he said.  

“That has an impact on kids.”

Simon Wolle, right, is the executive director of the Jewish Camp Council of Toronto and site director of Camp Northland-B’Nai Brith. (Simon Wolle/Camp Northland)

Simon Wolle, the executive director of the Jewish Camp Council of Toronto and site director at Camp Northland-B’nai Brith in Haliburton, Ont., says the loss of camps is, for kids, “an emotional, deep wound, really, that’s been opened.

“The feeling is that something critical for their growth and experience as kids has been pulled away from them. Some people have used the word grief for the type of emotion they’re feeling right now.”

‘A snowball effect’ of disappointments

It’s an impact Ottawa mother of two Misty Kratt understands well. She says her older daughter, who is almost 11 and was supposed to go to her Girl Guides of Canada camp, has had a spring marked by disappointments.

“We were supposed to have gone to Florida at the beginning of April, and ​we do that with my family who lives far away from us, and we only get to see them once in a while,” said Kratt, a medical researcher who was laid off shortly before the pandemic began and who also runs the Ottawa parents blog Kids in the Capital.

“That was obviously cancelled. Then her March break was cancelled with her grandparents. She was supposed to spend some time with them, and then, soon after that, we heard about the summer camp being cancelled.”

Misty Kratt’s 10-year-old daughter Aylen Stacey has been attending Girl Guides of Canada Camp Woolsey near Ottawa for three years and was looking forward to going back again this summer. (Misty Kratt)

Kratt said going to camp helps her daughter de-stress and build confidence — something needed more than ever after months of hearing about the pandemic and being unable to leave her house.

“Day-to-day stuff and drama going on with preteen girls, that can be hard,” she said. “So when a girl is able to go away and meet different girls and be accepted, nothing can compare to that experience.”

The absence of camps could be felt even more acutely by kids whose families can’t afford to create other activities for them, such as renting a cottage.

Wolle, whose Northland-B’Nai Brith camp is a charitable organization that provides funds to get kids to camp, says,  “There are many levels to understanding what a family like that is missing out on.

Campgoers pose at Camp Northland-B’nai Brith in Haliburton, Ont., in pre-pandemic times. (Simon Wolle/Camp Northland)

“Kids get to come and be kids, they don’t judge each other, there’s no separation of community or experience or access.”

Camp counsellors get creative

Left without the children many of them refer to as “our kids,” camp counselors are trying to come up with ways of staying in touch, even if they can’t do it gathered around a campfire. 

Initiatives like Rent-a-Counsellor, slated to kick off in June in the Toronto area, offer camp counsellors for hire who will come to your porch or backyard and teach kids activities from a distance. 

Kiron Mukherjee has been hosting a science experiment show for kids on his Instagram account. 

“I want to support families by keeping that camp-inspired learning going on at home,” says Mukherjee.

“As much as the kids miss camp, again the staff do too, so if I can stay involved in their lives by telling these fun stories about history and science and do some art along the way with them, that’s really special.”

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