Summer planning has long been a vexing and expensive puzzle for many parents, who use a mishmash of camp, family help and cobbled together vacation days to cover child care when kids are out of school. Now, for a second year, we have virus concerns to pile atop that heap of issues, and yet the calendar continues to flip forward and children still need to be occupied between June and September.
Let’s start with a bit of good news from infectious disease specialists. “I think things are not as dire this summer. We have a lot to be optimistic about,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.
The United States will finally have an adequate supply of vaccines by the summer, Dr. Hotez said, and we can go into the school break knowing that a good chunk of adults will be protected — though children will not start getting vaccinated until late summer, at the earliest. (Vaccine trials for children as young as 6 are just beginning now.)
The big wild card is the new variants of the virus. “States are starting to open up, so we could see a resurgence,” with these new strains, “and if that were to happen, that really changes things,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, an executive member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Committee on Infectious Diseases.
Knowing that information, how do you make choices for your family this summer? Here are some tips.
When weighing a choice, always think about the alternative. Whether you’re considering sending your child to camp, summer school or to spend time with newly vaccinated family members — think about what the alternative is, said Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University and the creator of the Covid-19 School Response Dashboard. For school, the alternative is remote school. If the summer option you’re weighing is camp, what would your child be doing otherwise? What are the benefits and drawbacks of those choices for your family?
Especially this year, it’s important to weigh social and emotional development as a factor alongside virus risks if your kids are in elementary school and have been remote since March 2020. “Another summer of remote school, even if it lets your kid move forward in math, may have less value than a summer of digging in the dirt,” Oster said.
Check out health guidelines from trustworthy sources. Dr. O’Leary recommended consulting the American Academy of Pediatrics’s suggestions for camps. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has a list of guidelines for camps and youth programs. Both of these lists can help you assess camps or other in-person activities for your kids, and can give you a set of questions to ask about safety procedures. Here are some to get you started: How big are the groups of children? Do they mix with children outside their group? What happens if there is a case of Covid-19 at camp? Will there be masking, and in what circumstances?
Sleep-away camp is risky, but it’s still an option. Even last summer, some sleep-away camps stayed open. Dr. O’Leary said the C.D.C. studied Covid in camp settings in Maine and Georgia in 2020, with very different outcomes.
Four overnight camps in Maine had no infections, during 6 to 8 weeks of camp, with the following safety measures in place: pre-arrival quarantine; pre- and post-arrival testing and symptom screening; keeping kids in small pods and not mixing with children outside those groups; use of face coverings; physical distancing; and maximal outdoor programming.
At a camp in Georgia, where campers did not wear masks — and there were a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, which included group singing and cheering in close proximity — there was a major Covid-19 outbreak. Results from testing done between the first day of camp and 14 days after camp ended were available for about 60 percent of campers and counselors; among these tests, 76 percent were positive.
If you’re considering sending a child to overnight camp, make sure their protocol is like Maine’s, not Georgia’s.
“Beware the Ides of March,” Dr. Hotez said. Both he and Dr. O’Leary emphasized that we are not out of the woods yet in terms of virus transmission. The drop we’re currently seeing in infections and deaths in the United States — a 41 percent decline in cases, 22 percent decline in deaths and 29 percent decline in hospitalizations in the past two weeks — may surge back up because of the new virus strains. If we want to plan the best summer for our families, we need to stay vigilant for the near term while more adults are getting vaccinated. “We have a lot to look forward to, but it’s going to be a terrible spring,” Dr. Hotez said.