Summer is coming fast, and parents are beginning to panic about camp. They don’t know whether it’s safe for their kids to go.
For many, it will be. But not for all.
It’s important to understand from the start that’s it’s impossible to reduce risk to zero. Our goal should be to reduce the risk of infection low enough that the benefits outweigh the harms.
There are many benefits to camp. Outside of the joy it brings, it’s good for kids to socialize, to play and to grow independently of their parents, especially after being cooped up inside for so long. It’s also good for parents, who might be freer to work. Perhaps most important, camps give us a chance to kick the tires on interventions that may be necessary for schools in the fall. Because of that, it’s critical that as camps move forward, we monitor them and collect data on what works and what doesn’t.
Camps that want to be safer should consider the following advice. Parents can consider it to decide how dedicated a camp is to safety.
The prevalence of disease in the area should be low.
A recent bipartisan plan put forward by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard argued that the country could be divided into red, yellow and green zones by how much disease existed locally. If almost no disease exists (one case per 36,000 people), a zone is green. If less than 1 percent of the population is infected, it’s yellow; and if more than 1 percent is infected, it’s red.
Very few places in America are green right now. That’s too bad, because a camp in a green area could likely operate almost close to normally, just watching out for kids who get sick. Camps should not operate in red areas. But only 30 million people are thought to live in red zones, and most of them are in a few well-known hot spots.
The rest of the country is yellow. With proper planning and preparation, camps could consider opening in those areas.
Decisions must be made locally.
If outbreaks start to occur (taking the area from yellow to red), it’s likely that everyone, including camps, will need to shut down and go back into stricter social distancing. Still, it’s possible that some places will have so little disease that life inside a camp will look pretty normal. Others will need to distance and constantly be on guard.
Some kids will have health conditions that will give their parents pause. Others will live with adults who do, and the same concerns will apply.
Testing should be ubiquitous.
Experts will disagree on exact numbers, but the Safra Center plan argues that to help move from yellow to green, an area needs to be able to conduct 2,500 tests per death from Covid-19 every day. This is absolutely doable with investment. Areas also need to have available infrastructure to trace and quarantine those who’ve come into contact with the disease — driving down the number of infected further.
Local areas will have to decide whether testing has been adequate to ensure that the prevalence of infections is low enough to merit opening camp. They will also have to recognize that tests aren’t perfect. Repeated testing would be best. If they wanted to be extra careful, camps should test staff regularly.
It’s possible that antigen testing, which will hopefully be available soon, will be cheaper and faster. Camps should make use of it.
Screen everyone, every day.
Kids and staff should be screened regularly for disease, likely at drop-off outside. This would involve asking families about symptoms, exposures and perhaps even checking temperatures. If anyone reports anything positive, or if they have a fever, they should stay home. If anyone believes that someone they are living with is ill or has been exposed, they should stay home. Kids and parents should be asked regularly, even daily, about all of this.
Stay outdoors all the time.
Outdoor activities appear to be much less likely to result in virus transmission than indoor activities. This means that camps should spend as much time as possible, if not all time, outdoors. Activities that used to be done indoors — like arts and crafts — should be moved outside. If it rains, camps might want to think about canceling unless they feel comfortable about their ability to socially distance kids inside with masks.
Minimize potentially infectious contacts.
The groups to which kids are assigned may need to be reduced in size. More staff may be necessary to do so. Kids should stay together all day with their assigned groups and not intermingle with others as much as possible. Games and activities that allow distancing are best. Masks should be encouraged for all, at all times. I know this will get a lot of pushback. It’s all about minimizing risk.
All-camp meetings should be avoided, as should dining halls. As much as possible, meals should be eaten outdoors, and hand washing should become a regular activity, especially before eating. Hand sanitizer should be available pretty much everywhere.
Clean and disinfect facilities regularly, with set schedules.
Even more than usual, camps will need to clean. This includes all facilities, including bathrooms and food service buildings. Any buses will need to be disinfected, as will anything that’s touched often. Identifying surfaces and areas that require continual care and then setting and following a schedule will make sure that the chance of infection is minimized.
Guidance will be needed on how this is properly done. If the C.D.C. won’t issue it, local public health departments must, relying on scientific expertise and successful interventions in other countries.
What happens outside of camp is just as important as what happens within it.
In normal times, how people spend their evenings and weekends really wouldn’t matter. Now it does. Counselors and staff will need to be rigorously safe on off-hours so that they don’t bring danger in. The same applies to campers’ families. Everyone will be in this together, so everyone will need to be able to trust one another’s actions outside to feel safe inside.
Overnight camp is different. It’s both safer and riskier.
In some ways, you can imagine how a four- or eight-week overnight camp could be run very safely. Every camper could self-quarantine before arriving. The camp could test upon arrival and encourage social distancing the first week, require everyone to wear masks and have everyone eat apart.
After that time, they could test everyone again. If no one was positive, they could be assured that no virus was in the camp; if they strictly kept the camp closed to all visitors for the rest of the session, kids and counselors could do almost anything they wanted without risk of getting the disease.
Or course, they couldn’t go outside of camp on trips. And letting new kids arrive later, or having a visiting day, would require everything to restart.
What makes overnight camp potentially safer also makes it riskier. Many children travel quite far to get there, and there’s no release valve. If some kids develop symptoms or test positive, there’s nowhere to send them quickly. Kids who showed up infected would likely need to go right back home. If things didn’t settle out quickly into a noninfected routine, much of the summer could be wasted trying to get things in order.
My children’s overnight camp runs in two-week intervals. Kids always seem to be arriving or leaving, and counselors and staff don’t always commit to an eight-week stint: The above plan wouldn’t work. It looks like their camp is going to be canceled this summer. But other camps might still try.
We should subsidize camps to make them safer and available.
All this assumes that parents are able to send their kids to camp and are merely making a choice. Too many families will not be able to afford camp, especially if making it safer increases the cost.
We could easily wind up in a situation where those who can afford it achieve safety, and those who can’t face greater danger. We don’t want camp to increase disparities further. We should pledge public funds to camps, as we hopefully will to schools, so that everyone can benefit.
Camps may even help the economy by letting more parents return to work. The investment is likely to be worth it — especially because camps can serve as a test for schools in the fall. If we don’t find out what works now to keep kids safe together in groups, we’ll be flying even more blind then.
We should do as much as we can to make camps succeed. By doing so, we’re also making school much more likely to happen. That’s even more important than camp.
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