No Plan in Sight for Schools or Camps

by Markus O’Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

Six weeks into the latest stint of online learning, concerns are mounting for caregivers, educators, and children’s programmers. Big questions are looming not only for the rest of the school year, but for the summer months following. For programming options to exist, decisions are needed soon, or thousands of kids, youth, and parents are going to continue to struggle right through the summer.

On April 6, Toronto Public Health issued a section 22 order moving all Toronto schools back into online learning. The Provincial government extended this to the whole province the week following. At the time, a pause in classroom learning seemed a prudent move with case counts spiking across Ontario and most teachers yet to get even a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

With cases now headed in a better direction, weeks of prioritization for teachers at vaccine clinics, and many doctors calling again for an urgent reopening of schools, will kids get back to the classrooms this year? The Premier was unable to provide any clear answer this week or even supply criteria that would be used to make a decision. Parents remain in the dark with their work productivity compromised and growing concern about the mental health impact on their children.

Schools, however, aren’t the only issue. If clear decisions aren’t made soon, the summer may not offer any kind of relief. Summer camp operators must also be able to make decisions about opening this season. Across the sector, summer camps incurred 40% of their operating expenses in 2020, while forgoing 100% of their revenue. Many would be unable to absorb similar losses in 2021. That means a decision on whether or not facilities can be opened safely is urgently needed.

The City of Toronto continues to make plans for camps and is cautiously optimistic they will be able to repeat their successful CampTO model from last year. But most camps are small, family-run businesses or not-for-profits operated by community agencies or volunteers. Most lack the resources to quickly pivot to new public health direction. Some camps, such as the community run Earl Bales Community Day Camp, where I had my kids registered, have already made the decision to cancel their 2021 season. Others may soon be forced to follow.

Roughly 35% of kids in Canada rely on camp programs each summer. About a third of those attend programs that serve vulnerable communities or have special needs. More than 70,000 youth are employed by camps each year, providing valuable job experience and leadership training. A second lost season could wipe out large portions of this industry leaving a giant childcare gap for families.

Public health decisions should always be made based on facts and the latest evidence with health and safety as a top priority – especially for our kids. But it’s time for the Province to lay out a clear path in both getting kids back to the classrooms and back to summer camps to keep them active and engaged through the coming summer months.