overnight camp sign

Will there be camp this summer?

Sleepaway camps are confident they will run in 2021

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.


By the time camp starts in late June, kids will have spent more than a year mostly at home with their parents. They’re suffering isolation, loneliness and lack of independent time away from their parents. School is harder than usual. Where is the fun in their life, the connection? Kids need camp. Now more than ever.

COVID is going to make sleepover camp different this summer. Camps are confident that we’ll run in 2021, and we don’t know yet what COVID precautions Public Health will require.

Under-statement: Kids need camp for their mental health.

Stereotype: This is only about rich kids. False! Almost half of the 117,000 kids who go to sleepover camps in Ontario get (and need) financial assistance to go to camp.

How will sleepaway camps have to be different this summer? We can make educated guesses, but the moving targets make it impossible to know. First is the case count. If it gets better in late spring, camps will be more normal. Second is what Public Health requires of camps.

Last fall, the Ontario Camps Association was invited by Ontario Public Health to prepare a draft guidance document for how summer camps will operate in ‘21. That guidance was reviewed by a panel of experts at SickKids in January and is now in the hands of Public Health. Camps impatiently await their ruling — because summer camp doesn’t spring full grown from the forehead of Zeus in June. It usually takes 10 months of planning. Public Health knows that.

The draft guidance is all about cohorting, testing and the camp bubble. Unlike schools, overnight camps can be a bubble, insulated from outsiders. Keeping COVID out of the bubble will likely require campers and staff to be tested and then isolate a few days before travelling to camp. Probably everyone at camp will have to be tested again … and again.

How much testing will camps have to do? It depends on two factors — COVID in the general community and COVID within the camp. The greater the safety, the more likely Public Health reduces precautions. If camp-age people get vaccinated before camp, it’s a whole new ball game. Don’t count on that.

The testing will cost big bucks. Well off camps will pay for it and likely have to surcharge parents. Community camps will hope for test funding. Speaking of parents, visiting days are likely off the table.

Then there’s cohorting. Cohorts at camp will probably have to be based on living arrangements, like one cabin or two functioning as a family and using Public Health precautions when interacting with others. Why? To control spread and for contact tracing in case there’s a COVID positive test at camp. Cabins live together, so it’s workable to isolate a cabin cohort if there’s a case.

Imagine summer starts with one or two cabins in each cohort. They and their counsellors do everything together including activities, and when they get within two metres of somebody outside their cohort, everybody masks. Let’s say the climbing instructor has to do up a camper’s harness. They both mask for that. The rest of the time instructors will stay two metres away from kids.

Then there’s the dining hall. No matter the camp, camps are noisy. Singing, cheering, yelling for the joy of it — these are the hallmarks of summer camp dining halls. Not this summer, ’cause spit goes walkabout when we cheer.

It looks like cohorts will sit two metres apart in dining halls and mask when they leave the table. No classic camp dining hall with everybody packed in like sardines. Instead there will be distancing. For most camps that means half the camp eats elsewhere or two sittings.

Big programs like Colour War and campfires will only be OK outside. Plays will be outside. Everything possible will happen outside. And all of it distanced by cohort.

We can do this! And we will. And we will love it, because camp people, from the youngest new camper to the oldest staff, are flexible and resilient, because for those lucky enough to experience it, camp will be the great healing from COVID isolation. It will look and feel like camp. And if camps get it right and get lucky, Public Health precautions will relax, and a week or two into camp, cohorts will open up, we’ll be singing and cheering, and camp shenanigans will rule again.