OHS Canada Magazine

A new reality for summer day camps: Possible disruptions due to air quality

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July 4, 2023
By The Canadian Press

Health & Safety air quality wildfires

The Spreading Creek Wildfire close to the Saskatchewan River Crossing at Banff National Park in this 2014 file photo. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Cassandra Szklarski

The summertime goal at Nicolas Hurtado’s camp is to get kids playing as much soccer as possible.

But in the wake of exceedingly poor outdoor air quality, last-minute prep for summer fun at his north Toronto soccerclub has focused on planning much more sedate, indoor activities: arts and crafts, playing with bubbles and as a last resort, movie screenings.

They’ll need alternative pursuits that can occupy kids for a few hours if they are forced indoors by poor air quality, he says, noting that campers and counsellors must this year brace for the likelihood that drills and matches will be sidelined by more than just rain or excessive heat.

“When these things happen, we’re going to have to adjust,” Hurtado, director of business operations for North Toronto Soccer, says of bad air days.

“And that doesn’t mean sit down and do nothing. But it means be creative and that it’s a time for Duck, Duck, Goose, or those kinds of camp games that are much more low-intensity.


“And then when the weather is good, we’re going to make the most of it, for sure, and get those kids running so they go home tired.”

Wildfire smoke, pollution

Ongoing wildfires that have sent plumes of smoke and pollution into many parts of Canada are raising added challenges for camp operators, outdoor sports leagues and families who had been counting on fresh air activities to occupy their kids.

In many southern Ontario cities, eye-watering haze forced daycares and schools to move recess indoors for some days in June, while outdoor team sports cancelled practices and some Canada Post mail delivery was halted.

What that bodes for summer pastimes is still uncertain, but Sheila DeVries expects her kids will spend less time outdoors than last year because of air quality concerns. Both are asthmatic so she specifically chose indoor day camps to limit possible exposure to irritants — dance for her eight-year-old daughter and karate for her 11-year-old son.

The southwestern Ontario mom also bought a backyard pool to keep them busy this season, and has told them to scale back summer expectations.

“They’ll probably not be able to swim as much as they normally would (nor) be able to swim at the public pool with their friends as much, either,” DeVries says.

“We usually do quite a bit of camping in the summer but we’re just kind of taking that day-by-day, weekend-by-weekend. We’re assuming that we won’t be able to do that hardly at all, with the air quality.”

As someone with asthma herself, DeVries says she’s used to making on-the-fly decisions on whether to change the day’s plans but expects that more and more families will have to learn how to assess risk and pivot on a dime.

Short summer season shrinking

Bruce Newbold, chair of the community group Clean Air Hamilton, predicts Canada’s already short season for outdoor summer fun will likely shrink even more as environmental woes deepen.

He says that’s especially true for communities in southern Ontario and Atlantic Canada that are only recently getting a taste of the wildfire havoc that more typically plagueswestern provinces.

“This has been an abnormal summer, I would say, but probably a summer that is going to look relatively typical over the coming years or decades as climate change takes hold and as we see a greater number of wildfires,” says Newbold, also a professor in the School of Earth, Environment & Society at McMaster University.

“It’s unusual right now but won’t be unusual in the coming years.”

Short-term exposure to bad air can cause temporary irritation to the eyes and throat and shortness of breath, he says, adding that would be exacerbated in kids with asthma.

He says parents should consult Environment Canada’s air quality health index when trying to assess risk, and not just rely on whether they can see or smell smoke in the air.

A spokesperson for the City of Toronto said its CampTO programs are prepared to move indoors if air quality is deemed too low and public health guidelines require program changes.

The City of Ottawa pointed to similar contingency plans that also kick in for extreme heat, heavy rain and other weather-related events. They include limiting or cancelling outdoor activities, cancelling day trips, keeping facility windows closed and running ventilation systems.

“Generally, contingencies focus on increasing indoor programming to replace outdoor activities and staff remain nimble in implementing contingency plans as needed to ensure the safety of children and youth,” Dan Chenier, general manager of recreation, cultural and facility services, said by email.

Navigating the unknown

Hurtado’s soccer club regularly checks the air quality index but he says uncertainties persist because a low risk reading can jump to high within hours. Families need adequate notice to know if that day’s practice is cancelled, so the club guarantees a decision by 3:30 p.m. each day, he says.

He also acknowledges that most families rely on day camps to serve as daycare for working parents, so his club will try to avoid cancellations but may ask for a late drop-off or early pickup if weather or air quality is especially bad.

“It’s a lot of navigating the unknown, much like COVID was. So far, I think communicating early has kept us in good faith with the parent group and the families so that they know we’re making the best decision we can. And we’re not meteorologists, we’re not scientists,” he says.

No matter what decision they make, someone will argue the opposite, he adds.

“As much as we want to err on the side of caution, eventually if we keep cancelling because we’ve been too cautious, parents and families are going to say: ‘Why can’t we play like we want to play? We’re fine with this.’ So we’re trying not to jump the gun and be too, too cautious,” he says.

“But at the same time, we want to make sure it’s safe for the kids.”


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