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Child & Teen Health
Summer camp: What parents need to know this year
- By Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
It’s time to make summer plans, and for many families, those plans include summer camp. After the year we’ve had, the idea of getting out of the house, being active, and seeing other children sounds very appealing.
This summer will be better than 2020, thanks to vaccination — especially as the vaccine is now available for everyone 12 and older. This means that all camping staff, and all campers over 12, could theoretically be vaccinated before heading to camp. However, children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and we are still learning how well the vaccine protects people who have weakened immune systems. So as families make plans, they need to think about COVID-19.
Start here: Consider risk factors — and get vaccinated!
Before even thinking about camp, families should take into account their particular risk factors. Hopefully, all those who are eligible have been vaccinated. If they haven’t been vaccinated yet, now is the time to get the vaccine. While you are at it, make sure that children are up to date on childhood vaccinations. Many children have gotten behind because of the pandemic.
If a child isn’t or can’t be vaccinated, it’s important to think about risk factors. If they have health problems like asthma or congenital heart disease that put them at higher risk of complications of COVID-19, it’s essential to check in with the child’s doctor before sending them to camp.
If a child has a weakened immune system — including taking medicines that weaken it — it’s important to check in with their doctor whether or not they have been vaccinated. For some children at high risk, it might be better to stay home one more summer.
Updated recommendations based on who is fully vaccinated
In late May 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their summer camp recommendations based on whether campers and staff are fully vaccinated.
- If campers and staff are fully vaccinated: The CDC says that masks and social distancing aren’t necessary inside or outside. (Note: campers and staff with weakened immune system should follow the guidance of their doctors). However, camps should be supportive of those who wish to wear masks.
- If some campers or staff are not fully vaccinated: Due to a range of camper ages or other reasons, many camps have a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated campers and staff. For those camps, the CDC recommends that unvaccinated campers wear a mask indoors, and outdoors when people are crowded close together, especially in places where there are higher rates of COVID-19. In practical terms, when there are a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, some camps may decide that it is simpler to have everyone wear masks.
Find out about additional plans to lower risk
There is no way to make any camp risk-free. But there are lots of ways that camps, and parents, can lessen the risk. Here are some things for parents to think and ask about:
Where are campers and staff from? A local day camp with children and staff mostly from a town with low numbers of COVID cases is going to be lower-risk than one that draws from many different communities, including some with higher numbers. The New York Times has an interactive map of the US that can help you check how low or high COVID-19 case counts are in states and counties.
How are the campers organized? Are they divided into small groups that don’t mix (which is preferable), or are they in larger groups — or not divided into groups at all? The more mixing, the more chance of exposure and spread.
Are activities mostly indoors or mostly outdoors? The more outdoors, the better. Indoor activities should be in well-ventilated spaces.
How much physical distancing is planned or possible? While distancing may not be possible all day, a camp that has unvaccinated campers or staff should be set up in a way that limits crowding and gives children three to six feet of space whenever feasible. Parents should ask specifically about typical days and activities at the camp, including how meals will be managed, to get a sense of how close to each other the children will be.
How much shared equipment will there be? The less, the better — and any shared equipment or surfaces should be regularly cleaned. This is particularly important for sports camps. (If your child or teen has had COVID-19, see my previous blog post about returning to sports and physical activity afterward.)
How is the camp screening for symptoms or exposures, and what protocols do they have in place? This is going to be most important when there are unvaccinated staff or campers, or in areas of higher case counts. There should be a plan for screening for symptoms (and exposures outside of camp) for campers and staff, with appropriate plans for staying home, testing, and quarantine based on the results of those screenings. Sleep-away camps should have designated quarantine space, and access to testing. Ask about testing requirements, as well.
Will the campers and staff be wearing masks? Ask what the plans for the camp will be, understanding that this depends on vaccination status and that there may be some situations (like swimming) when wearing masks may be difficult.
What are the camp’s plans for hand washing? Regular hand washing with soap and water or hand sanitizer is important to limit the spread of germs, including the virus that causes COVID-19. Parents should ask how often campers will be washing their hands, and about the availability of hand sanitizer.
What is the plan for meals? Eating together increases the risk of transmission of COVID-19. If there is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, it’s best if children bring their own food, and sit at a distance from each other when they eat. If food is being served, it should be pre-packaged in bags or boxes, with no shared utensils.
What kind of training and supervision will staff have regarding COVID-19? Staff should be trained in recognizing and preventing COVID-19. There should be written protocols that parents should be able to see.
Are there additional considerations for overnight camps? Yes. Overnight camps may need to take additional precautions, again depending in part on vaccination status. Examples include having everyone sleep head-to-toe, and using physical barriers between beds and bathroom sinks.
Talk to your children about how they feel about camp — and about the worries they may have about being around other people, especially if they have mostly been isolated at home. Talk specifically about how the days will work, and be ready to answer any questions.
It sounds like a lot, but it’s important. For at least one more summer, we need to stay safe — for our health, and the health of everyone around us.
For more information about overnight camps and on recommendations for all camps, check out the information about camp safety during COVID-19 on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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