By Dr. Benjamin Sohmer
As Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa’s medical director, a board member, and the father of a camper and a counsellor, I look at camp through many different lenses but with one ultimate goal: a safe and healthy camp population. Now that summer 2021 is in the rear-view, I‘ve had time to reflect on what was quite possibly the most impactful summer in CBB’s history.
After being closed in summer 2020 due to the pandemic, the need for camp had never felt more pressing. Kids had been primarily stuck at home in virtual schooling, with very little or no socializing, sports, or extracurricular activities. Parents were struggling as well - scared of COVID, trying to manage atypical working arrangements while tending to unhappy children.
The fate of the 2021 season remained unclear, yet the industry rallied together: camp directors and administration, along with camp associations and medical professionals collaborated via non-stop Zoom meetings - sharing information, brainstorming, and offering resource support. Our CBB admin and medical teams spent countless hours planning for every possible scenario, prepared to hit the ground running the minute the government gave overnight camps the green light. Then on May 7, the announcement we had all been hoping for: CBB was allowed to open for summer 2021.
Communications detailing our plans immediately went out to parents and staff, knowing that their cooperation and partnership would be essential for a successful summer. We determined that the most effective mitigation strategies to keep COVID out of camp were to rely on pre-camp and in-camp testing, while creating a closed camp bubble. To maintain the sanctity of our bubble, all campers would have to start on the same day, staff day-offs would take place in camp, and visiting day would be virtual, in lieu of parents visiting in-person.
Three days prior to the first day of camp, CBB ran COVID testing pop-ups in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto for all campers and staff. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when this first round of testing came back with zero positives - one test down, two to go.
Upon arrival on Day One, all campers had a rapid test, and waited outside of our camp gates until a negative result was confirmed. Once again, the entire camp population’s tests came back negative, and CBBers were beyond ecstatic to be all together again in their happy place.
In some ways, camp did not look the same as in previous summers: campers were split into cohorts, wore masks when in larger groups, and were screened daily. Instead of eating inside the mess hall, meals were eaten outside under massive open-air tents. Yet there was no shortage of CBB ruach, and after a summer away, the overall camp energy was off the charts.
On Day Five we tested all campers and staff once again, and when this third round of tests came back 100% negative, it felt like a “TSN turning point”: we had created a COVID-free camp bubble up in Quyon, Que. Masks came off, we ended cohorting, and the kids started to experience a sense of normalcy they had been missing for a long time.
We tapped into something extra special this summer. After 18 months of uncertainty and isolation, campers and staff were living their absolute best lives: socializing with friends, getting tons of fresh air, and off devices at their home away from home. Messages from our admin team consistently reported the same feedback: smiles were bigger, laughs were louder, kids were being kids ... camp was just what the doctor ordered.
Summer 2021 at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa was without a doubt the most rewarding summer I’ve ever been a part of. We’ve always known that our kids love camp, but if the pandemic has proven nothing else, it’s shown us how much our kids need camp.
- Dr. Benjamin Sohmer is an anesthesiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute