Gov. Greg Abbott announced last month that youth camps can reopen, but some parents are still figuring out whether the spread of coronavirus is worth any risk.
Some day and overnight camps have decided to cancel their programs, and others have begun offering virtual options.
But if a camp has decided to reopen, is it safe for kids to attend? Here’s what health experts say parents need to consider.
The health of your child and household members
Children haven’t been as seriously affected by COVID-19 as adults. Although cases of an inflammatory condition have been reported across the country in kids who have been previously exposed to the virus, health experts say the syndrome, or any other serious complication, is rare.
The bigger worry is that a child may get a mild form of the illness or be asymptomatic and risk passing it onto adults in their home.
So parents should consider not only the health of their children but also of other individuals in the home and any other people the children will come into contact with upon returning from camp.
If anyone in your household is at a higher risk of developing a serious illness, this may not be the year to send your children to camp.
Case counts in the area of the camp
Health experts recommend consulting Dallas County’s coronavirus risk level and its color-coded chart of safety recommendations, as well as case counts in the area where the camp is before making a decision.
“If it looks chancey, I would not send my kids to summer camp,” said Dr. Robert Haley, director of the division of epidemiology in the internal medicine department at UT Southwestern. “One year of summer camp is sad to miss. But if it’s a matter of that or killing your grandmother … that’s exactly the decision you’re making.”
Some health experts say camps in rural areas, which haven’t been hit as hard by the virus, may be safer. But for many camps, it may be too early to tell whether it will be unaffected, especially if it occurs later in the summer.
“My thought is to first check your cancellation policy and see when’s the last moment you can make decisions like that,” said Dr. John Carlo, the CEO of Prism Health North Texas and former medical director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. “You’d want to be as flexible as possible with making that decision at the last minute as much as possible based on the current conditions of the day that he or she’s leaving.”
Health measures at the camp
Parents also should consider factors such as the camp’s disease prevention measures and access to medical care for staff members as well as children, health experts say.
“It depends a lot on the situation, the type of summer camp,” said Dr. Trish Perl, chief of infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center and an infectious-disease specialist at Parkland Health and Hospital System. “You need to understand a lot about their philosophy around cleaning … and how are these kids going to be sleeping together, and is there going to be access to medical care? A lot of those kinds of questions I would have.”
In announcing his decision to allow summer camps to reopen, Abbott laid out recommendations for safely reopening day and overnight youth camps.
The guidelines for both are similar and include screening campers and staff members daily, requiring employees to wear face masks, having an isolation plan in case someone gets sick, separating campers and the staff into groups that are consistent throughout the camp stay, prohibiting parents or guardians from visiting except to pick up and drop off children and discouraging self-serve buffets.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also published similar guidelines for summer camps.
Even with such measures in place, some health experts say preventing the virus can be a huge challenge.
“I think if I ran a camp, I probably wouldn’t want to open,” Dr. David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told The New York Times. “But if you think that you could control the spread if your defenses were breached, and you have a plan to do that, you may be willing to try. You are asking people to trust that you have that plan.”
Are day or overnight camps safer?
The CDC says children are at the lowest risk at camps where groups don’t commingle, campers stay six feet apart at all times and don’t share objects, activities are mainly outdoors and all campers are from the same city or area.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said at a CNBC virtual conference that sleepaway camps might be safer than day camps because children are in one place for an extended period of time, as opposed to returning to their families each day and risking spreading the disease.
But other health experts disagree.
“I think people have other choices, I might not say this is the year to do that,” Perl said. “I might feel more comfortable where it’s really an outdoor camp and it’s not an overnight camp. I think whatever happens in the night, all the games and etc., it’s a little harder to control what kids are going to do and not do.”
Helene Drobenare, a social worker and the executive director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Camps in New York, told CNBC that no camp can create a perfect protective “bubble” for children and staff.
“A bubble is to assume that when you close the gate, that means you can’t get mail, you can’t get a milk delivery, you can’t send anybody in or out to get any kind of food or supplies, and it means you won’t have any day workers,” she said. “We probably could do a bubble for a very short time period, maybe a few days. I think a bubble is what we want to believe and it’s what our hearts want and that’s what we want for our children — a place that will be 100% safe and the disease won’t find them there. But in my opinion, I don’t think overnight camp can give that coverage. Nowhere in the world today could give that coverage. If it could, we wouldn’t be where we are.”