KITCHENER -- A promise to return to in-person summer camps this year from Ontario Premier Doug Ford is providing a Kitchener family with a sense of relief.

On Monday, the Sears family told CTV News the surprise announcement from the premier was like a weight off their chest. The decision will allow their son, who is on the autism spectrum, to return to in-person activities to develop much-needed social skills with which he struggles.

“With the social interactions he has, he’s learning, he’s being more creative, and it just brings him out of his shell,” said Craig Sears. 

Online learning has been a struggle for 10-year-old Parker Sears, according to his parents.

His dad says sometimes, the younger Sears becomes so overstimulated – he drops out of his virtual class to decompress. 

Parker is not a fan of the remote learning model, sharing his excitement of the news of an expected return to in-person camps.

“I said, ‘Oh my god, I can finally go back! No more of this virtual nonsense!” said Parker. 

Last year, Parker took part in a virtual edition of the Brick Works Academy summer camp, but it wasn’t quite the same according to his mom.

“Last year was a bit of a disaster and so, this year, he’s going to see that consistency that he’s been looking for and that’s really exciting for him,” said Paula Sears.

The premier’s seemingly off-the-cuff comments on Sunday were made while he toured the ‘Doses After Dark’ overnight COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Peel Region. 

“I have to say one thing about the summer camps, July 3rd is usually the time they open, they’re opening up this year because of the great work that these people are doing,” said Ford.

On Monday, he was backed by Ontario’s deputy premier and health minister, Christine Elliott, as she addressed reporters at Queen’s Park. 

“We know that the stay-at-home order will end on June 2 unless it’s renewed again,” said Elliott. “We are anticipating that there may be other events – summer camps, golf, tennis, other things – may be available as of June 2 or perhaps before depending on the clinical evidence that we receive.”

In an email to CTV News, Ivana Yelich, the spokesperson for the premier, said "We will provide more detail on what the weeks ahead will look like before June 2nd, when the latest extension of the stay-at-home order expires.”

The Ontario Camps Association (OCA) appeared to be caught off guard by the premier’s announcement on their Twitter account.

For David Goodfellow, the executive director of Brick Works Academy, which operates camps in Waterloo Region and elsewhere, the announcement led to a flurry of activity.

“We were like, ‘For real?’” said Goodfellow. “What are the details? Does this apply to indoor camps, outdoor camps, overnight camps, day camps? Are there any specific criteria we need to be aware of?”

Goodfellow says his group has been preparing for a potential return to in-person camps. He says if a decision had come in June, it may have been too late to plan for regular camp activities to return.

However, Goodfellow says there is now a rush to fill staffing vacancies.

“I’m confident we will still be able to fill those positions,” said Goodfellow. “We can’t execute everything until we know for sure what the details are in the guidance document.” 

In an email to CTV News, the manager of corporate communications for the Region of Waterloo, Lynsey Slupeiks, says the Region hasn’t heard anything from the province but, are eagerly awaiting guidelines for summer camp operations.

For the Sears family, the hope is the premier’s promise will hold true for the sake of their son.

“I can finally see my friends and stuff because my friend, Oron, moved away so, I’ve been pretty lonely,” said Parker. “Now I can finally make some friends.”

New requirements

During the 2020 summer camp season, a guidance document was produced which advised on public health measures including cohorts of campers. 

A new document has yet to be produced but, as the vaccination campaign ramps up, Elliott suggested summer camp operators may be able to require proof of vaccination before admitting registration.

“That will be up to the operator,” said Elliott. “When you’re working with children, I imagine that would be something summer camp operators would want to know about.” 

As of Tuesday, the province is opening up COVID-19 vaccine pre-registration to all adults in Ontario.