Faced with camp closures, Ontario sisters connect kids online

In March, non-essential businesses across Ontario shuttered in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As the months stretched on and summer approached, parents began to worry. With no solution to COVID-19 in sight, the future of summer camp was in question.

Thousands of children were set to attend camps across Ontario, ranging from city-run day camps to weeks-long overnight camps. Providing both educational and social opportunities for campers—and childcare for working parents—camps are an essential part of many families’ summer plans.

While overnight camps are currently prohibited from operating due to COVID-19 restrictions, day camps can open under strict rules.

The City of Toronto ran a traditional day camp called CampTO that started mid-July, offering primarily outdoor activities and requiring masks when indoors. The City of Ottawa’s day camps opened around the same time, emphasizing physical distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, and other safety regulations. As of August 1, one case of COVID-19 was confirmed in an Ottawa camp after a city employee tested positive.

In the US, which has faced a higher rate of infection than Canada, in-person camps have had some super-spreader events: a sleep-away camp in Georgia left 260 infected.

For other day camps in Ontario, operating in-person activities isn’t worth the risk. To protect the health of employees and campers, some camps decided to offer their programming completely online this season. 

Sisters Ruth Bryce and Rebekah Dillman, who were both set to run camps this season, faced the summer’s uncertainty together. COVID-19 brought them new professional challenges, while strengthening their family bond.

Bryce and Dillman grew up attending camps—participating in everything from art camp, to sports camp, to pop star camp—and have worked as counsellors at summer camps for over seven years. This summer, both were set to take on leadership roles.

Bryce began working as camp director for Eco Adventure Camp in Kingston, run by the Queen’s University Biology station, in November. In a typical summer, the camp would bus campers from Queen’s campus up to the Biology Station in Elgin, Ontario for nature-themed activities. There, campers aged 8 to 13 were supposed to hike, canoe, and learn about the natural world.

“That’s one of the really cool things about summer camps, especially day camps, which are able to be a little bit more specialized,” Bryce said. “The kids are able to go and do something [that] they’re passionate about.”

Dillman got the opportunity to work as a coordinator at Camp Awesome this summer, after years of attending as a camper. Run by the Ottawa-area division of the United Church of Canada, Camp Awesome’s curriculum focuses on leadership development and building community through religious activities.

In the weeks after the sisters were sent home from their university classes—Ruth from Queen’s University, where she is studying Education, and Rebekah from Carleton, where she’s working towards a degree in Child Studies—their focus shifted from academics to camps.

“We were one of the [camps] that decided to go virtual earlier than others,” Bryce told The Pigeon in an interview. “A lot of the Queen’s camps were just holding out on the chance that they might be able to be in person.”

Due to COVID-19, Camp Awesome needed fewer staff to run the programming, and was unable to bring their counsellors on to work this summer. Instead, the four coordinators took on multiple roles, managing both administration and day-to-day activities.

“Some of [our employees] were disappointed that they didn’t get to work,” Dillman said, “but they also were expecting [to be let go] at the same time.”

By May, sleep-away camps had been cancelled and camp counsellors from across the country faced unemployment.

Beyond the financial impact of losing a summer job, many young adults are missing out on the social and community aspects of being a camp counsellor. With this in mind, Dillman works to keep her staff connected, whether or not they’re currently employed. She hosts weekly Zoom calls to maintain a virtual sense of community.

For Bryce, the Queen’s Biology Station had already decided that regardless of how camp would be delivered, all staff would keep their jobs. This meant it was all hands on deck for Eco Adventure Camp as they navigated the transition online.

Under the same roof, Bryce and Dillman worked together to tackle their shared issues. The sisters have spent the summer bouncing ideas off each other, sharing resources and strategies.

“That made me feel a little bit less like [I was] completely on my own,” Bryce said.

While their camps offer different programming, the sisters were committed to supporting their campers the best they could. They were united in their goal to weather the changes brought on by COVID-19.

A photo of a Zoom screen, with four young people smiling.
Coordinator team at Camp Awesome. Photo courtesy of: Rebekah Dillman

For campers, virtual camp gives them time to socialize with their peers, learn something new, and feel a sense of normalcy.

Eco Adventure Camp organizers knew offering an in-person camp experience didn’t make sense given the strict safety regulations of COVID-19—renting buses and doing interactive activities was no longer possible.

“You couldn’t go canoeing, because you’re not six feet apart from people,” Bryce said. “[Our] camp would have been impossible.”

A photo of two children in a canoe, with a counsellor pushing off from the dock.
Canoeing at Eco Adventure Camp in 2019. Photo courtesy of: Ruth Bryce

Bryce also emphasized that while virtual camps cannot offer complete supervision like traditional day camps, it does offer parents a few hours of respite during the day.

While parents are still required to supervise their children during camp sessions, online camps give them the opportunity to occupy their child for the length of a call.

“We decided pretty early on that we didn’t want to [prepare] programming from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. like we normally would […] because that would just be exhausting for the campers and exhausting for the staff,” Bryce said.

She researched other science camps that had already transitioned online years before COVID-19, learning from their successes to shape Eco Adventure camp around their established programming.

Eco Adventure Camp uses a combination of short online lessons and something they call their “Camp in a Box.”

Each camper gets a box of supplies and worksheets mailed to their home with all the materials they’d need for their week at camp.

While the camp is virtual, participants are all from the Kingston area. Eco Adventure Camp’s handbook has a section encouraging families to visit Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre—where the camp would typically operate—to explore the area’s biodiversity and trails.

Four paper bags labelled "Monday, Wednesday, Thurs, Fri-Yay" sit in a cardboard box.
“Camp in a box.” Photo courtesy of: Ruth Bryce

Bryce packs the Camp in a Box supplies herself, with each day of the week’s materials stored in their own paper baggies. Activities on ecology, animal behaviour, and climate change often involve hands-on tactile activities. Bryce also includes activities for families to do outside of camp time, as a supplement to maintain engagement.

Both camps have weekly themes, changing up the activities so no week is exactly the same.

To make sure that all her campers could participate in Camp Awesome, Dillman designed the curriculum to use items that could fit in an envelope or could be found around the house. This way, no camper would be left behind if there were delays in mailing supplies.

Shortly after her sister, Dillman found out that Camp Awesome would also be shifting online. With safety in mind, they adjusted their programming to offer completely virtual activities.

They had a significant transition period where staff learned the technology and adapted to virtual instruction.

Camp Awesome’s programming includes crafts, songs, and plays. During their Zoom calls, they incorporate pre-recorded skits and songs—performed by the coordinators—alongside their live conversations and games.

Dillman has also been running Camp Awesome’s YouTube account, since each coordinator took on more responsibility by managing the camp’s social media. This aimed to keep campers more connected with the Camp Awesome community outside of camp time.

Keeping the childcare aspect of camp in mind, both camps aimed to occupy their participants without needing parents’ assistance. Their activities are designed for all ages to be able to participate independently while giving parents a break.

There was a significant learning curve for how in-person activities could successfully transition online. Both sisters learned the hard way that paper folding crafts were harder to do over Zoom than in person.

“It takes [the kids] a couple minutes to fold a piece of paper,” Dillman said. In a regular summer, she would eventually just fold paper for a camper who was lagging behind, but through Zoom, the counsellors’ explanations could only go so far.

Like her sister, Bryce’s first attempt at a paper folding activity also didn’t go as planned.

“That was a complete and utter disaster,” Bryce said. 

Right now, both sisters are reconsidering plans to do paper airplanes, cootie catchers, or anything that involves paper folding for the rest of the summer.

As university students, Bryce and Dillman are no strangers to technology. Even so, they found that they had a lot to learn.

“The kids just picked it up so fast,” Bryce said. “I kept trying to explain to them how breakout rooms work [on Zoom] and they [were] all just sitting there like, ‘we already know this.’”

Bryce said that the children were already confident navigating the intricacies of the platform, understanding better than some counsellors how to toggle their mute button and camera, and easily shifting from larger calls to smaller groups in the breakout rooms.

In adapting their camps online, the sisters found ways to use technology to modify in-person activities and develop completely new programming exclusive to virtual camp.

A key example of this is using custom backgrounds to suit theme weeks. Pyjama day and funky hair day translate well to the digital platform. Campers can even participate in beach day by customizing their background.

Seven young people pose on Zoom. They are dressed for the beach with artificial beach background edited behind them.
Eco Adventure Camp counsellors prepare for beach day. Photo courtesy of: Ruth Bryce

For students who have special needs, accommodations, or who are learning English as their second language, the loss of one-on-one attention from counsellors can be a challenge. As they run their camps, Bryce and Dillman are attempting to mitigate this through their use of technology.

After a request from the parent of a camper who is hard of hearing, Camp Awesome switched from Zoom to Google Hangouts a few weeks into camp because of the platform’s ability to provide real-time subtitles.

Similarly, Eco Adventure camp is trying to maintain inclusivity to all their campers.

Bryce speaks French and typically would be able to take any French-speaking campers aside to go over activities with them one-on-one. This is a practice Bryce tries to keep up over her camp’s Zoom calls.

This summer, she’s taken to translating her French campers’ jokes into English for the rest of the class.

Through the use of breakout rooms and a little parental guidance, these two camps work towards inclusivity for all campers.

Bryce and Dillman are proud of how their camps have weathered the pandemic and are optimistic about the future.

“I think all of the staff come out stronger in terms of adapting material,” Bryce said.

Bryce has confidence that counsellors are more resilient than ever. Whether working virtually or in person with strict regulations, she’s sure that her team is equipped to handle the changing landscape of summer camp next season and beyond.

Dillman isn’t sure if her current team will be returning to Camp Awesome next summer, but she’s proud of the template she’s laid out for her camp.

“Next summer if they have to do virtual camp, it wouldn’t be as scary for the [staff],” Dillman said.

As students transition from summer camp back to school this fall, teachers may be learning from the successes—and failures—of day camps across Canada.

Many point out that the mixed success rate of camps across North America might be an indication of how reopening schools will go in Ontario.

Ontario recently released their guide for reopening schools, which has created apprehension in teachers, parents, and students. For the most part, schools are offering adapted in-person activities, with cohorts, physical distancing of one meter, and face masks for older grades.

Bryce believes that virtual camps could ease the transition for students who may opt to learn at home.

“I think any camper that has attended virtual camp for the summer is going to be more comfortable being online,” she said.

Both Bryce and Dillman will soon enter the workforce, and hope to work with children in some capacity. They plan to use their newfound virtual teaching skills to adapt to whatever new challenges they’ll face.

The sisters say their relationship was a key part of the camps’ successes this summer. Bryce and Dillman grew up attending camps together, and credit those experiences to a lot of happy childhood memories.

Now, as camp directors struggling through the challenges of COVID-19, their bond has become even stronger.

“This year has been a slightly different version of that bonding, where we’re bouncing ideas off of each other more than we probably normally would,” Bryce said.

“I feel very lucky that it has brought us closer together.”

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