What to look for in a summer camp during COVID

April 20, 2021
Two boys kayaking with smiles on their faces.
A lot of families are ready for kids to get back to the kind of activities and friendships that come with summer camp. iStock

Bug spray? Check.

Sunscreen? Got it.

Swimsuit, sneakers, shorts? Yes, yes, yes.

But what about masks? Or a pre-camp COVID test? Are they an essential part of any family’s summer camp checklist this year?

And more importantly, with most kids still unvaccinated at this time, is summer camp even safe?

Allison Eckard, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at MUSC Children’s Health, has some thoughts on that based on her expertise and experience. She has taken care of children hospitalized with COVID-19, including some suffering from the rare but serious complication known as MIS-C, so she’s seen what the virus can do.

Dr. Allison Eckard 
Dr. Allison Eckard

Eckard is also the mother of two young kids, so she knows what it’s like to worry about children’s safety. And she’s been serving as an expert adviser to Charleston County and other school districts, analyzing safety measures’ effectiveness, so she knows what works.

Now, it’s time to look ahead to summer. Last year, most summer camps were a bust, thanks to the coronavirus. But this year, the arrival of vaccines is making adults less nervous and kids more hopeful they’re headed back to camp. There’s a good reason for that.

“Children can get a lot, emotionally, socially and developmentally, from going to camp,” Eckard said.

“In my opinion, it’s the responsibility of both the parents and the camp to make good decisions for not only an individual child but for all of the children at camp. And that means that they should have protocols in place for testing campers, minimizing risk with physical distancing and masks, screening for symptoms and getting sick kids out of camp, just as we've been doing for school.”

Some camps make their COVID precautions clear, posting them online. Others don’t, so if parents want to know what they’re doing to keep kids safe, it’s up to them to ask.

“It's all about risks and benefits and what kind of population you're talking about. A child with no underlying health concerns may need a different level of risk mitigation than a child who has a compromised immune system, for example. But all camps should have a well-defined plan for minimizing transmission among both campers and staff,” Eckard said.

“The best camps to look out for are those with good policies and those where the children spend a lot of time outdoors because that's going to be a lower risk.”

She recommends parents look for camps that:

  • Lay out plans for physical distancing.
  • Require universal mask wearing, especially when campers are indoors, or if they’re less than six feet apart.
  • Screen children for symptoms.
  • Have plans for isolating sick children and quarantining close contacts.

While day camps that include a lot of fresh air are the lowest risk, Eckard said, “I would not rule out an overnight camp.”

If a child does go to an overnight camp, she suggests looking for one that keeps kids in groups that can serve as households. They eat together and sleep in the same cabin or tent. “You can’t wear a mask 24/7, so cohorting is a way to lower their risk and lower the risk of the virus spreading throughout a camp.”

Eckard said it’s also a good idea for overnight camps to require COVID testing before a session starts.

Dr. Elizabeth Mack 
Dr. Elizabeth Mack

National organizations are offering camp guidelines as well, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. Elizabeth Mack, M.D., director of the Division of Pediatric Critical Care at the Medical University of South Carolina, is an AAP spokeswoman.

“Camp provides what many of us are craving after this last year –  community and relaxation. We expect Pfizer vaccine emergency use authorization in early May and then Moderna shortly thereafter for kids 12 and up. So vaccination will be a huge part of the strategy for older kids. But we can’t let up on the other mitigation strategies,” Mack said.

And protecting children who are at risk of severe COVID, such as kids with asthma, obesity, sickle cell disease, lung issues or immune system concerns, needs to remain a priority. “Check with your pediatrician about whether camp is right for your child,” Mack said.

Eckard encouraged all parents to do the right thing, even when they aren’t required to. For example, if a child wants to go to an indoor basketball camp and is unvaccinated, masks are important. “An individual family can do the right thing by putting a mask on their own child. Despite what some people say, the data show that it's very safe to wear a mask, even when you're doing vigorous exercise. Kids just need mask breaks – preferably when they are outside and spaced more than six feet apart.”

An unvaccinated child around other kids without a mask not only raises the risk of allowing the coronavirus to spread that week –  but also in the days ahead. “Camp is unique in that a lot of times, children have different camps every week. So there’s a lot more chance that one person is going to infect a greater number of people.”

So yes, masks need to stay on a lot of kids’ camp checklists for now.

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