Health & Science

How To Make Summer Camp As Safe as Possible

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If you’ve decided to send your child to summer camp (assuming it wasn’t canceled this year), or you’re planning to create one of your own, there are a few simple ways to make it as safe as possible, according to Dara Kass, M.D., an emergency room physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. 

“The biggest question to ask yourself is, will I be able to ‘undo’ things if I find out someone gets sick?” says Dr. Kass. “The bigger or the farther away or the less supervision there is, the more layers of complexity that make unraveling harder.” This “unraveling” has to do with contact tracing—once someone shows symptoms or gets sick, how easily can you find out who else they’ve been in contact with? How quickly can you identify and isolate anyone who might have been impacted? The fewer people you’ve been around in the simplest circumstances, the easier that is to figure out.

Here, she outlines the options she describes from most to least safe—and why. 

The Safest Bet: Your own co-op camp

The safest option is to hire one camp counselor (whose usual camp gig may have been canceled due to the pandemic) or college-age student to supervise a group of about five children, splitting the cost among the parents involved. You could potentially even have the parents themselves take turns in the counselor role. These kids should otherwise already be generally well-connected to each other—as in, the parents know and trust each other—so that there’s open communication between families. The counselor would be responsible for the day (or a few hours, depending on how you want to set it up), and organize activities outdoors for the campers.

The idea is that one small group, all day, all week long is a much safer bet than bigger groups of kids interacting with other big groups of kids on and off. “They can do neighborhood walks, play with a sprinkler outside or swim in one of the family’s pools, and they can spend time doing crafts—and if anything happens within that unit, you can unravel it very easily so everyone knows what’s going on,” Dr. Kass says. If anyone has a fever, all the kids can stay home for a week and then come back, and you don’t have to worry too much about other contacts they might have had.

The Next Safest Option: A system of those same pods that don’t engage with each other and spend all day outdoors with their group. You might drop your child off with a sack lunch at the park where their small pod will be, participate in screening them for fevers, and pick them up later. “This way you’re still in your group and you’re not really interacting directly with other groups,” she says. An example of this would be a day camp where the children are placed in small groups that spend their day in the same park as other small groups, but don’t interact.

The Next Safest Bet: Small formal camps

A small formal camp is one attended on-site at a facility, such as a gym, school, or club. Ideally, the activities would be concentrated in one space, each small group would not interact with other groups, and the same small number of counselors would supervise each day. Some of the biggest issues here involve the sharing of the facility with other people, some of whom may be coming in and out throughout the day; shared bathrooms; making sure the facility is thoroughly cleaned; and enforcing mask use and social distancing in enclosed indoor spaces. 

Not A Good Bet: Large day camps

Large day camps are typically away-from-home drop-off scenarios, where kids move around between multiple activities and locations all day. “If someone gets sick, it’s harder to track the connections they may have made,” Dr. Kass explains. This is especially true if your child takes a bus to camp, joins different small groups for different activities, or attends field trips, for example. “There is a lot of unraveling that would be required if you’re using common spaces,” Dr. Kass says. “If one kid gets sick you have to ask who was on his bus, and maybe there were three pods in art together but they were all using the same supplies—there are a lot of moving parts.”

The Least Safe Bet: Sleepaway camp

Dr. Kass and her partner, Jill Baren, M.D. recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times explaining why they believe overnight camps should be canceled. “Sleepaway camps are not safe mainly because of how these types of camps function,” Dr. Kass says. There are more people who come in and out of sleepaway camp, making it harder to maintain control of the group. For example, counselors have days off and may stray off-campus, and nurses and other specialists who interact with kids don’t always stay at camp full time. “The way healthcare functions at sleepaway camps and the more involved it is by nature, the more ways the bubble can pop,” says Dr. Kass. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued its guidelines for youth and summer camps, and overnight camps were cast as the highest risk. Their list of considerations for overnight camps included limiting attendance to local residents, placing barriers between bathroom sinks and beds, enforcing social distancing, and sending home any campers or staff members with Covid-19 symptoms, such as fever, cough, or runny nose. 

“Every child who gets a fever at sleepaway camp would have to get a COVID-19 test and right now there is no fool-proof test, which means even if only 1 out of 5 of those tests is wrong, you’d have to double-check all those cases with an additional swab test, and that alone can take up to three days for results,” Dr. Kass says. This is what led the CDC to say that any child with a fever at sleepaway camp would immediately have to go home, as would any other child they came into contact with—which is far more difficult to manage with the complexities of overnight camp than it would be with a small co-op pod of five children.

Even with all of these disclaimers, it’s important to remember that there are no perfect quarantines. It comes down to examining the structure of the gathering, knowing the consequences of your choice should someone get sick, and from there, making the best choice possible for your child. Says Dr. Kass, “If there is good communication between families, you’re teaching kids safe practices, and you have a plan in place if someone gets a fever, sometimes that’s the best you can do, and that’s OK.” 

If you’re still worried about gatherings and your child is able to stay home this summer, there are myriad virtual camps to help you get through. It may not be the same, but for many families it’s just one more way they are adapting their old lives to fit into the “new normal.”

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.