Lori Hacker’s five-year-old son had a great time at Jack and Pat Kay Centre Camp last summer, making new friends, learning new skills, and thriving in a Jewish environment.
“Centre Camp is like a gem in the community,” she said. “The level of care and support and fun is second to none.”
But she’s worried her younger son, who turns three this summer, won’t have the same opportunity. Under new child care legislation introduced by Ontario’s Ministry of Education, camps must now meet the same licensing requirements as daycares if they serve campers under four years old.
It’s a goal that’s unrealistic and unnecessary, said Centre Camp director Phil Faibish.
“The act makes sense to help protect children in daycare, but we are a different program,” he said.
Centre Camp is accredited by the Ontario Camps Association (OCA), which has more than 400 standards, including protocols about safety, hygiene and the ratio of caregivers to children, that camps must meet, some of which are stricter than the ministry’s daycare regulations, he said.
Some of the requirements for daycares make no sense for camps, which operate mainly outdoors and serve children of different ages, Faibish said.
One sticking point is that camps group children by grade to keep friends together, while daycare rules separate kids by age, so that all four-year-olds are in one group.
The new regulations, based on recommendations in the ombudsman of Ontario’s report on unlicensed child care, came into effect last August.
“Younger children are a more vulnerable population,” Education Ministry spokeperson Gary Wheeler said in an email. “Requiring a child care licence for camps serving children under four years of age places an emphasis on standards and protection.”
The OCA is meeting with the ministry of education and hopes to reach a compromise by February or March, which would allow accredited camps to accept preschoolers.
Meanwhile, Faibish has emailed parents of the 75 to 100 affected campers. He said he’s “optimistic” the problem will be resolved. “We’re telling families to come to camp and save their spot.”
If the situation isn’t resolved, the camp, which has about 1,000 campers, will issue refunds, but Faibish said he doesn’t know what parents will do, since there aren’t many daycare spots available.
Hacker has registered her younger son and hopes her two boys will go to camp together this summer. “The government didn’t consult with people who pay taxes and work for a living. I don’t think they thought this through. Camp is not the same as daycare.”
Lubavitch Day Camp, which serves about 700 children, is also accredited by the OCA, but director Ester Steinmetz is working on being licensed as a daycare so she can accept the 60 to 80 preschoolers who attend the camp.
“The parents are in a frenzy,” she said. “A lot of camps are closing. I have a lot of applications. I can’t take them all.”
Getting the proper licensing is an onerous process. “I’m working on a 120-page document I already comply with,” she said.
Operating as a daycare means camp will also be more expensive, since early childhood educators are needed for each group, not just counsellors. This will be hard for families whose children had attended smaller, less expensive camps or informal backyard camps, Steinmetz said.
Some camps, especially those not accredited by the OCA, are simply not accepting the youngest campers.
Daniel Opert, director of Camp Eitan Breakaway, decided not to enrol three-year-olds this year, affecting about 15 children. “It’s a small group for us,” he said. “We might decide to apply [for a daycare licence], but for the time being, we’re just not opening for that age.”
Other camps that operate as daycares during the school year are extending their licences to cover the summer as well. The summer programs at the Miles Nadal JCC and Torah Tots Preschool are in this situation.
Even so, the camps face obstacles. Torah Tots director Chayala Zarchi said she’s always hired certified teachers, but she’s still trying to find out if she can also hire the teenage counsellors who give the camp “a fresh energy.”
Heather Heagle, executive director of the OCA, said she’s “feeling positive” that “some type of a new commitment allowing accredited camps to be exempt from the regulations,” can be reached with the Ministry of Education.
The Jewish community, in particular, is highly invested in camping and is “going berserk,” about the change in regulations, she said.