What You Need to Know About Summer Camps This Year

Sabrina Rojas Weiss

At this time last year, most of us had no idea whether summer camps would be open for 2020, as COVID-19 spread throughout the world. This year, though the pandemic is far from over, things are looking a lot better for kids longing for a summer full of friendship bracelets, swim classes, sun burns, and silly songs — and for parents hoping to give kids some of those quintessential experiences. Some summer camps are filling up already, but if you’re still on the fence about whether it’s safe, we’ve gathered the latest for you.

“It is very clear to us now that there is major pent-up demand from both children who want to go to camp and from parents who want their children to go to camp,” Paul McEntire, the executive vice president and chief operations officer of YUSA, which operates 10,000 YMCA day-camp sites and more than 320 overnight camps in the country, tells SheKnows. “Our registrations are running actually ahead of 2019 registrations for the same date. So they missed [camp] and they’re ready to get back to normal for a whole lot of important reasons — including giving the parents a break, but also the mental health and wellbeing, and just the fun and activity that they sleep away camp offers to children.”

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For some parents, camp may be their kids’ first time out of the house after more than a year of distance learning. For others, it’s part of a gradual return to some semblance of normal that began with this very strange school year. All of us appreciate the benefits of all the extracurriculars and socialization that camp offers kids after so much isolation. At the same time, it’s important to weigh those rewards with the risks, especially as we watch cases rise in some regions, despite the ongoing COVID vaccinations.

What we know from last year

Summer 2020 didn’t just feel like an experiment, researchers actually gathered data on whether day camps and overnight camps became COVID hotbeds or managed to keep kids and staff relatively safe as the virus surged. And the news is pretty good, as long as camps did their utmost to keep to CDC guidelines.

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The American Camp Association (ACA) hired an outside environmental health consulting firm to come up with a detailed “field guide” for running camps safely in 2020. After the season was over, the ACA conducted a survey of 486 camps that served 90,000 campers and found that only 74 camps had positive cases, 72 staff and 30 campers, or less than 1 percent of the camp and staff population.

Of course, that report is from the camps themselves, so we should also look to outside research. A study by Duke University, published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at 6,800 campers and staff at YMCA day camps in North Carolina over a period of 147 days last summer. Only 17 positive COVID cases were reported (nine kids and eight staffers), and of those, only one camper and one staff member seemed to have caught it from another within the camp. A look at four sleepaway camps in Maine found similar success, with only three out of 1,022 campers and staff testing positive for the virus.

The measures that kept kids safe, experts say, were testing before camp and upon arrival, using masks, limiting indoor activities, restricting parents or caregivers from entering camp facilities, and keeping kids in small cohorts that didn’t mix with others.

For an example of what happens without those safety measures, we can turn to one camp in Georgia. According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, at least 260 out of 597 campers and staff of an overnight camp tested positive for COVID shortly after it opened. Though all had to show a negative test before arriving at the camp, they weren’t tested again. Nor were campers required to wear masks, though staff were. The report also cited a lack of ventilation indoors, a high number of attendees sleeping to a cabin, and activities such as singing and cheering (unmasked) as possible causes of the spread.

What’s happening this year

While last year was a rough one for camps, it’s looking like most will be given the green light to operate this year, as long as they go by state guidelines. McEntire told us that 46 states had approved overnight camps, and he expected the other four to follow shortly. But in 2021, they are not letting their guard down and still following that extensive field guide set up last year, with a few alterations.

“We’ve learned a few things that are important that we didn’t know last year, but we’ve also learned a few things that we thought were important last year and turns out aren’t quite as important as we thought,” he said.

For example, YMCA camps will still be keeping kids to small cohorts, monitoring them for symptoms, and restricting parents to an outside area at drop-off. Advance testing requirements will vary by region, and McEntire said they were still exploring whether they would be testing on site as well. At the same time, now that the science has shown there’s very little virus transmission through surfaces, some of the really stringent cleaning requirements have been relaxed.

But one new addition to YMCA camps this year will be the special attention they’re paying to campers’ mental health. The past year-plus has taken quite a toll on kids, and while simply attending camp and making new friends will likely help boost the mood of many, others could still need more help with anxiety and depression brought on by our drastically shifting pandemic lifestyle.

According to McEntire, some Y camps are collaborating with mental health organizations to bring in professionals, while others may hire someone directly to have someone on site who can identify whether a child is going through something serious and need a referral, or who just might need an adult who will listen to them.

At home, parents may hear from kids who are anxious about the idea of going to camp, especially if they’ve been doing remote schooling this whole time. How can we tell whether we should heed their fears or encourage kids to push through them to try something new?

“If there seems to be a genuine fear or what for your child is an abnormal level of anxiety, then that’s something that you need to take seriously and perhaps get some guidance, and potentially not have your child to go,” McEntire advised. “But some level of anxiety would be normal. I mean, you’re going away and doing something that is going to have challenges. You’re going to meet new people. You’re going to have new adults, even if it’s a camp they repeatedly go to. And so that’s part of what brings the growth — is that you’re faced with some anxiety, some fears, and you find that you can manage those and work through them. And it gives that child such a great sense of confidence and self-efficacy that they can do this kind of thing on their own, that then carries them through the rest of life.”

What parents can do

First of all, if you still haven’t signed your kids up for summer camp (day camp or overnight), you need to act fast to secure a spot. But also, don’t rush your choice. Take the time to look over the camp’s stated COVID-prevention procedures and don’t be shy to ask questions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org has a list of questions you can ask. For example, get a sense of how much time will be spent outdoors versus indoors, how they’ll handle hand hygiene, meals, and competitions. Face masks rules need to be in place and cohorts should be small if you want to keep transmission down. Ask what the protocols are for when a child gets sick.

For now, we don’t think it’s possible for camps to require all its staff or teenage campers to get vaccinated, but McEntire said it appears that most eligible Y staff members have been eager to get their shots. That should provide some peace of mind, and we know every tiny bit of that will help.

If you still don’t feel comfortable sending your kids to camp, that’s also OK. There are still many virtual at-home camp options that can provide some of the same community and educational opportunities. Just make sure you get those kids outside too.

Before you go, check out our gallery on Cute & Stylish Kids Face Masks.

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