Children can enjoy summer camp this year as long as safety measures to prevent COVID-19 are taken. Here's what parents need to know before signing their kids up.

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With more and more Americans getting vaccinated—and with life returning to normal, slowly but surely—the guidance around what's safe and what's not is constantly evolving.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provided recommendations for what fully vaccinated individuals can safely enjoy after their shots. And while things like getting together with grandparents and traveling are back on the table, the reality is that kids under 12 aren't eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine—yet. Children generally aren't affected as severely, but families still need to follow safety precautions since kids can get COVID-19 and spread it, even if they don't display any symptoms.

That said, there are certainly more things for kids to enjoy this summer—especially once their parents have been vaccinated. And here's some great news: Summer camp 2021 is considered a safe option, with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying it's actually beneficial for children as long as proper mitigation measures are taken.

An image of a little boy at summer camp.
Credit: Getty Images.

"Kids need to have social activities," says Sara Bode, M.D., medical director at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and executive committee member for the AAP Council on School Health. And, says Dr. Bode, in general, anything outdoors is going to be lower risk. "Organized places like summer camps can be a great way to get them enriching activities in a controlled environment where safety measures can be in place."

2021 Safety Guidelines for Summer Camps

Before you sign your children up for a summer program, here's the latest guidance from the CDC and AAP to consider.

General Guidelines for Summer Camps

  • Camp operators, staff, and eligible campers should get vaccinated when possible.
  • Camp directors should still encourage frequent hand-washing and respiratory etiquette (like covering coughs and sneezes).
  • A healthy environment should be maintained, meaning regular cleaning and disinfecting, and the sharing of items should be discouraged.
  • If camp is taking place inside, there should be as much ventilation as possible.

Guidelines If Everyone (Campers and Staff) is Fully Vaccinated

  • If everyone is vaccinated, staff and campers don't need to wear masks "except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance," says the CDC. That said, camps should support anyone who still chooses to wear a mask.
  • Social distancing isn't necessary.
  • Vaccinated campers and staff don't need COVID-19 testing after exposure, unless they're displaying symptoms. They also don't need to quarantine or stop attending camp after exposure.

Guidelines If Everyone is NOT Fully Vaccinated

  • Unvaccinated individuals over 2 years old should continue wearing a well-fitting mask in indoor settings. Masks should only be taken off in certain situations, such as when eating, swimming, or sleeping. Camps can also require both vaccinated and unvaccinated campers to wear masks indoors.
  • Regardless of vaccination status, campers and staff don't need to wear masks outdoors, given the low risk of COVID-19 transmission. That said, according to the CDC, "particularly in areas of substantial to high transmission, people who are not fully vaccinated are encouraged to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people who are not fully vaccinated."
  • Summer camps that consist of small groups of children that stay together all day, each day are the lowest risk. These so-called "cohorts" should also have the same staff each day, adds the CDC. The organization recommends at least 3 feet between all campers within a cohort, and at least 6 feet between all campers outside of a cohort.
  • While vaccinated individuals don't need to social distance, camps may decide to adhere to physical distancing protocols if not everyone got their shots.
  • Unvaccinated campers, staff, and parents should stay home if they're feeling sick or have been a close contact of someone with COVID-19. Camp directors should also have a plan in place—like having staff or campers stay home—should someone become sick.
  • Campers may bring in their own meals. Unvaccinated campers and staff should maintain 6 feet of distance while eating and drinking
  • Camp activities should be modified for safety purposes.

When to Err on the Side of Caution

Dr. Bode recommends proceeding with caution when it comes to families with high-risk children. "Vaccinated parents will want to be sure to mask when around other unvaccinated people. They can still have the possibility of transmitting the virus to their child." But that doesn't mean they can't enjoy summer camp.

According to the AAP, "Children with special health care needs or disabilities, like all children, should have the opportunity to attend camp and greatly benefit from an enriching camp experience. Designing camp activities to be inclusive of children of all abilities is vital for all children to benefit from camp. As a group, children with special health care needs should not be excluded from the camp experience." Camp directors can work with parents and pediatricians to find a scenario that works best.

If you have any concerns or questions about sending your kid to summer camp, it's best to check with your health care provider.

The Bottom Line

With safety measures in place, camp is a go. "During the summer, it is important that children begin to reestablish connections with their friends, peers, and non-parental adults in an environment that supports their development while also consistently practicing the recommended principles to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2," says the AAP.