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Is It Safe to Send Kids to Summer Camps?

Summer camps are a right of passage for thousands of children across the country. 

Attending camp, whether it’s to train for a particular sport or offers the opportunity to spend days and nights away from home, is especially important this year. Most kids have been at home for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have not had opportunities to do the kinds of socializing with friends like they would have had at school. 

Parents and guardians considering sending their children to camps should expect a modified on-site experience — one that should prioritize sanitizing, social distancing and responding to potential exposure. 

Because there is still much to learn about how COVID-19 spreads, and because response plans vary from state to state and organization to organization, parents have the responsibility for asking camp representatives specific questions to gain all necessary information before evaluating if each camp provides a safe environment for their children.

“There's not a unified response or way to deal with (this pandemic),” said Jayme Murphy, an epidemiologist with the National Sports Center, a 600-acre multi-sport complex in Blaine, Minnesota. The NSC canceled its camps and events for the summer as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s so hard working with unknown risks,” he added.

What is known about the risk of contracting COVID-19 is that it varies wildly depending on age, level of exposure and underlying health issues. That’s why it’s important parents ask them themselves — and camp administrators — questions to ensure their children are safe. 

It is also known that spreading COVID-19 is more likely when people are close together, because the virus spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. 

Unfortunately, much of what makes camp great also makes it a breeding ground for COVID-19. The virus can spread through a camp full of kids that bunk, eat, play and trade sports equipment. Furthermore, some camps draw in counselors and participants from across the country, meaning multiple people may attend the camp from states with very different guidelines, such as what is considered acceptable person-to-person contact. 

Safely running a camp isn’t impossible, and organizations such as the American Camp Association (ACA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide guidelines for camps to open.

The CDC recommends camps should only reopen if they are abiding by state and local orders, protecting children and employees at higher risk for severe illness and screening campers upon arrival for symptoms and history of exposure. 

Here are examples of questions parents or guardians should ask before sending children to camps, along with some suggestions for addressing issues.

What are the rules for drop off and pick up? 

Parents should drop off their campers during staggered time frames and say goodbye inside their vehicle. Campers should then receive an initial health screening prior to entering the camp facility. A health screening includes taking temperatures and assessing the camper’s health in the past 14 days. Baggage, especially handles, should be thoroughly disinfected. 

How is the camp sanitizing? 

Before sending your children to the locale, confirm the camp is promoting healthy hygiene such as hand washing and intensifying cleaning, disinfection and ventilation of facilities. 

Even if the camp has a sanitization plan, it’s important to make sure that they’re using cleaning products correctly. Many hospital-grade chemicals require the chemical to stay on a surface for a specific period of time to maximize effectiveness before being wiped down. 

“In public health, there’s outcome evaluation, which is what happens because of a protocol,” Murphy said. “And process evaluation, which is how well you’re doing it, according to how you’re supposed to do it.” 

Activities should be adjusted to limit the sharing of items such as supplies and equipment. Sporting equipment that’s frequently touched should be assigned to a small number of campers or groups for the duration of camp. The ACA recommends all equipment should be cleaned at the end of each session, as well as the end of the day. 

What social distancing guidelines are in place? 

The more time campers spend outdoors, the less likely they are to become infected. Parents should be sure to ask how many campers are bunking together. If it’s a cramped space with a lot of kids, the risk of infection is higher. 

In its Field Guide for Camps, the ACA recommends limiting cabin access to individuals who reside in that cabin. Furthermore, all campers should use hand sanitizer before entering the cabin. 

When it’s time to eat, campers should primarily eat outside, and sit next to the same individuals each meal. It’s also important to eat with utensils, instead of by hand, as much as possible. 

At water fountains, campers should use disposable cups, rather than drinking right from the spigot. 

How does staff respond to a suspected infection? 

In the event of a potential exposure, the camp should immediately inform parents about contact their child may have had with a suspected or confirmed case. 

After the camper has been isolated and all of their belongings have been sanitized, camps need to assess how many people were in contact with the suspected or confirmed case. 

“You’re talking about the worst case scenario if someone at your camp has it,” Murphy said. “You have to isolate anyone that was in sustained contact with them for 15 or more minutes.”

Parents and guardians may have questions that pertain to a child’s specific needs, and they are encouraged to ask as many questions as it takes for them to feel they have received enough information to properly evaluate whether sending their children to camp is a good idea.

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