20210428-FEA-summer camp

The more than 14 months of pandemic life have disrupted two school years, sentencing millions of children to extended remote learning, birthday parties on Zoom and seemingly endless stretches of screen time. But the season will soon change, and it promises a reprieve for children and their parents: summer camp.

This second coronavirus summer will be different from the first in a couple of crucial ways. Children younger than 16 are still not eligible to receive vaccine doses, but at least 140 million adult Americans have gotten one or both of their shots. And public health officials now have a better idea of how the virus spreads in camp settings — and they have one year’s worth of studies showing what to do and what to avoid.

But camps will not be without their risks. On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued eagerly awaited guidance for keeping children safe this summer at camps indoors and out, both sleep-away and just for the day.

Campers and staff members should be placed in small groups, or cohorts, to minimize exposure to other people, the CDC said. While in the cohorts, kids should stay at least 3 feet away from their peers and should wear masks at all times, except while eating, swimming and sleeping. When not masked, or with people outside their cohorts, campers should keep a 6-foot distance. Whenever possible, camp activities should happen outside. Campers should avoid indoor sports and games that involve close contact. Disinfect. Frequently.

The CDC advice comes about one month before many summer camps are slated to begin, with anxious — and vaccinated — parents asking what their kids can do while they wait for vaccines, which experts say could take another year. More than 3.6 million children have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Studies have shown that children are less likely than adults to suffer severe illness or die, but they can still get sick and spread the virus.

Experts point to some concerning examples. An outbreak in a Minnesota county earlier this year was traced to 26 youth sports teams. Surges of cases elsewhere prompted CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to warn this month that outbreaks involving young people “are related to youth sports and extracurricular activities.”

In Michigan, where the virus variant first found in the United Kingdom is fueling the spread, officials recently sounded an alarm about relatively high levels of children hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

And last year, a summer camp in Georgia yielded an example of what could go wrong if administrators do not heed the CDC guidelines. The sleep-away camp turned into a superspreader, with an outbreak sickening 260 children and staff members — more than three-quarters of the 344 tested — in less than a week. The camp required everyone to test negative for the virus before attending. Staff members had to wear masks, but children did not.

More than 1,000 miles north, four counterexamples: At sleep-away camps in Maine, staff members conducted virus testing before and after campers arrived and made them quarantine. Campers and counselors were kept in cohorts. Everyone wore masks. Of the 1,022 attendees from 41 states, three people tested positive one week after arrival; they were isolated, their contacts quarantined, and no other virus transmission occurred during the roughly two months of camp, according to a CDC study.

“These findings have important implications for the successful implementation of COVID-19 mitigation strategies in other overnight camps, residential schools, and colleges,” the study concluded.

Nearly one year later, the newest CDC guidance seeks to build on these experiences, along with favorable findings of limited virus transmission in schools that require masks, which prompted officials to revise recommendations of 6 feet of distance between students down to 3 feet.

For those who have tracked the guidance concerning schools, the summer camp best practices will sound familiar. In addition to masking and distancing, ventilation is key, the CDC said. Children should avoid sharing toys, books and games, and they should have their own assigned cubbies to store their belongings.

For overnight camps, officials recommend that everyone eligible get fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior. Anyone who is not vaccinated should provide proof of a negative coronavirus test, and everyone should be checked for symptoms upon arrival and every day after. If community transmission in the area is high, the CDC recommends that camps conduct testing.

Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at University of Chicago Medicine, is among those who have signed their children up for a sleep-away camp. Last month, she told The Washington Post that she considered camp “a reasonable risk for our family to take” and said she trusts her sons to wear masks and remind everyone around them to do the same.

“There are actual benefits to going to camp and having experiences away from your parents,” Bartlett said, “especially when you’re locked up with your parents for the past year.”