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CDC Issues New Guidance For Camp This Summer

two boys looking at nature wearing bucket hats and masks

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Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released new guidance for summer camps to keep staff and kids safe from COVID-19.
  • The CDC strongly recommends full vaccination for campers and staff ages 12 years and older.
  • Emphasis for those who are not vaccinated is on physical distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, as well as mask-wearing and routine screenings.
  • The CDC guidance is optional, and some states may have different guidelines; it's important to check the rules and recommendations in your area.

To date, nearly 300 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the US, fully vaccinating more than 135 million people. The efforts have given the green light to several things that simply weren’t possible for many people during the restrictions of 2020—which included summer camps

Some camps did take place last year, and the statistics are encouraging. According to the American Camp Association (ACA), their CampCounts 2020 Survey Research Study identified approximately 90,000 campers served last summer. Out of the 90,000, only 102 campers/staff members reported a positive COVID-19 case (approximately 0.1%). 

“The science demonstrates that camps that have implemented strict, layered mitigation strategies, including masking, cohorting, physical distancing, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, proper handwashing, and respiratory etiquette, have been able to safely operate in person,” says Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the ACA.

Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of social distancing brand Give Space, points out that one successful camp last year implemented many of the now CDC recommended practices, which included bunking children head-to-toe to promote social distancing.

"Something so simple and yet very creative, and they didn’t have one outbreak!" Winner says. "If safe health practices are in place at summer camp, children and their families can have a much-deserved break from the challenges of the COVID-19 school years."

Kids who missed their camp experience last year are excited to return this summer, but it won’t be quite back to normal. On May 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released updated and detailed summer camp guidance for both day and overnight camps.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Testing and Screening

When it comes to sleep-away camps, the guidance says eligible staff, volunteers, campers, and family members should be fully vaccinated at least two weeks before heading to camp. Those who aren’t vaccinated should self-quarantine for two weeks before arriving at camp and also provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken one to three days before arrival. 

"Those two weeks pre-arrival offer a great opportunity to reinforce personal health practices in the children, including reminding them of personal space awareness, mask-wearing (as requested), and regular handwashing without a fuss," Winner says. "Getting infected means returning home, which is a sour message they will clearly understand."

The CDC recommends that campers and staff members are screened for COVID-19 symptoms upon arrival at camp, with screening tests to be carried out if there is significant community transmission in the local area. Daily symptom checks should also be carried out to monitor for possible illness.

For camp sessions that last one week or more, screening testing should be done three to five days after arrival at camp, with the exception of fully vaccinated asymptomatic people.

Face Masks and Social Distancing

A crucial part of the guidance concerns wearing face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the camp setting. "It is critical that we recognize and minimize the risks associated with young children and COVID-19 infection," says Winner. "Although children most often present as asymptomatic or display mild symptoms, their long-term risk is yet to be determined, and they can still infect others." 

Carol Winner, MPH

If safe health practices are in place at summer camp, children and their families can have a much-deserved break from the challenges of the COVID-19 school years.

— Carol Winner, MPH

Kids at day camps age 2 and up who are not fully vaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear masks indoors as well as outdoors in crowded settings, says the CDC, except when they're eating, drinking, swimming, or napping.

Plus, they should be split into small groups (cohorts) that interact only with each other. Campers who are not vaccinated must stay three feet from others in their cohort (six feet when eating or drinking), and six feet from everyone else (including their own counselors). During naptime, head-to-toe positioning is recommended.

The CDC recommends splitting overnight camp groups by cabin (household cohort), and members will only have to wear masks and physically distance when they're with non-household cohort members.

Immunized individuals no longer need to wear masks or practice physical distancing, according to the agency. However, regular hand-washing is still strongly encouraged.

Camp Activities 

As many activities as possible should be conducted outdoors, where the risk of COVID-19 infection is considered much lower than indoors. If an indoor activity is unavoidable, the CDC says it should be in a well-ventilated space, with open windows. 

Tom Rosenberg, CEO American Camp Association

Camps that have implemented strict, layered mitigation strategies, including masking, cohorting, physical distancing, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, proper handwashing, and respiratory etiquette, have been able to safely operate in person.

— Tom Rosenberg, CEO American Camp Association

Singing, chanting, shouting, or playing instruments should be done outdoors, and close-contact or indoor sports and large gatherings or assemblies should be avoided altogether. 

Sharing of toys, books, and games is strongly discouraged, and camps are advised to provide a labelled cubby for each child’s personal possessions. Each camper should also be assigned their own nap mat, to be sanitized before and after use. 

Check the Rules in Your State 

Remember, the CDC guidance is designed to supplement and not replace state and local guidelines, which means some states may choose not to follow it. Plus, some overnight camps will allow campers from different groups to mix over time, provided there have been no COVID-19 cases, and local guidelines don't prohibit it.

What This Means For You

Before you send your child to summer camp, communicate with the camp directors. The ACA recommends asking them about their COVID-19 prevention protocols, how they are adapting their program to meet state guidance, and the field guide's layers of protection. 

It's important to also ask other questions about the health and safety of their campers that are not necessarily related to COVID-19, as safety should be the top priority for camps every summer.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States. Updated June 4, 2021.

  2. American Camp Association. CampCounts 2020. 2021.

  3. CampMinder. Camps and COVID-19: How one summer camp stayed open in 2020. Published August 28. 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for operating youth and summer camps during COVID-19. Updated May 28, 2021.