Quebec pediatricians, health professionals call for reopening of sleepaway camps this year

In an open letter, more than 85 health-care professionals say the camps are essential for the mental and physical well-being of children in the province.

Open letter calls on Legault government to make decision sooner rather than later

Last year, only day camps were allowed to open in the province. (John Hart/The Canadian Press)

Pediatricians, infectious diseases specialists and mental health professionals are calling on the Quebec government to allow sleepaway camps to resume this summer. 

The open letter, published Monday and signed by more than 85 health-care professionals, was penned by Dr. Earl Rubin, director of the pediatric infectious disease unit at the Montreal Children's Hospital, and Dr. Marc Lebel, president of Quebec's association of pediatricians.

The letter argues say socialization and physical activity are essential to children's mental and physical well-being, and that the government should consider the benefits of sleepaway camps.

"It's really a place where kids grow socially, emotionally, physically," Rubin said in an interview Monday.

"Coming off the heels of a year where they lacked so much social interaction, it really is imperative that they give us a chance to open camps and open camps safely." 

Rubin said it is important the government give camps the go-ahead sooner rather than later, so that they have enough time to put special measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus. 

"I think the important thing is to put pieces in place so the virus doesn't get introduced to the camp," said Rubin. "That's either with testing or quarantining thereof and policies within camp where kids would start off camp in a bubble or cohort, sort of like there is in schools, so that if there is spread it would be limited to one bubble." 

Rubin said that, if these measures are enforced rigorously, it would lower the risk of transmission among children and staff at the camps.

But, he said, it would take time for the camps to train their staff and prepare their facilities properly and that is why it is important for the government to make an announcement on this quickly. 

He said these measures would also help prevent the spread of coronavirus variants and said the reopening should be conditional on the province's epidemiological situation when summer comes.

In the letter, Rubin and the other health-care professionals list a number of consequences the pandemic has had on the province's children and teenagers, including an increase in eating disorders and psychological distress. 

The letter says overnight camps can help to mitigate some of those issues by reducing screen time for children and teenagers, and allowing them to explore nature and participate in outdoor activities. 

Last year, the Quebec government allowed day camps to open in the summer with special measures and bubbles in place, but opted to keep sleepaway camps closed. 

Decision needed by mid-April, camp association says

Sean Day, spokesperson for the Quebec Camping Association and director of camps for YMCA Quebec, says many camps in the province are still trying to recover from the financial losses they suffered last year. 

"There are many camps that are in danger of closing if they don't run and if they can't get government support," said Day. 

"We would like to be allowed to reopen, obviously, as long as it can be done safely."

But Day says camp directors would need to hear from the government by mid-April in order to do so. He said they need time to prepare for registration, hire staff and put safety measures in place. 

"Everyone knows the COVID risk is serious and it has to be managed well, and to have the time to do that properly, we need clear guidelines," he said. 

Day says the association, which represents more than 120 overnight camps in the province, has submitted a proposal to public health authorities and is waiting to hear back.

Isabelle Charest, Quebec's junior education minister, has been in discussions with public health about summer camps. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

In a statement, the provincial ministry responsible for camps acknowledged the importance of kids being able to socialize and said it is in talks with public health authorities regarding the upcoming season.

"We fully understand the importance of summer camps in the lives of the youth and families in Quebec," said Alice Bergeron, a spokesperson for Isabelle Charest, the province's junior education minister.

"Since last year's summer [day] camps were a success, we are confident we will be able to announce good news quickly regarding this matter."

With files from Lauren McCallum

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