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Keeping kids safe at summer camp

Safe summer camp experiences

This time last year, as cases of COVID-19 began that first ominous surge in our state, summer camp directors were scrambling to make tough decisions about remaining open, skipping 2020 completely or moving their programming online.

This year, we know a lot more about the coronavirus — and how to safely contain it — as the camp season approaches. With the example of reopened schools, and guidance from the CDC, camp directors are once again ramping up in-person programming, to the great relief of stressed parents and cooped-up kids.

Still, the virus remains a threat, especially as variants circulate and vaccination rates remain far below herd immunity. With that in mind, we asked pediatrician Darlene Melk, M.D. what precautions parents should ask about when evaluating a summer camp program.

Hot summer temperatures in the greater Phoenix area mean most day camp activities must be conducted indoors. So how does that work during a pandemic?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement reassuring parents that transmission of the virus among children and staff is rare in controlled settings where safety protocols are followed, including wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, and being diligent about enhanced cleaning and disinfection of surfaces.

Parents should ask about a camp’s mask policy and whether children and staff are required to wear masks. Keeping children in small groups with dedicated staff will help minimize COVID-19 risk. Staggered arrival and drop-off times can help limit contact between groups.

Ask for a detailed agenda of activities for each day and find out if any time will be spent outdoors. If activities are only indoors, ask about the ventilation and spacing situation for the campers. Also consider the length of the camp, knowing that the more hours children are together, the higher the chances of exposure.

It may be safest for campers to bring their own meals and eat in separate areas or with their smaller group. Children should bring their own water bottles rather than drinking from water fountains.

Camps should have plans for what to do if a camper or staff member starts having symptoms of COVID-19 or any other illness. They should provide clear information to staff, campers and their families on when and how long to stay home if they get sick or have close contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Should specific types of activities still be avoided?

Children should continue to avoid sharing items including electronic devices, toys, books, and other games or learning aids. Children should use their own pencils, pens, scissors, glue, etc. When items must be shared, they should be limited by group and cleaned and disinfected after each use. If possible, contact sports should be avoided.

What about sleepaway camp?

Parents should ask how many campers will be staying together in each room. If it is not possible to have individual or private rooms, then limiting sleeping arrangements to two campers per room would be ideal. At minimum, lining up mats or beds so that campers and staff sleep head-to-toe at least six feet apart can help limit risk.

Parents should also ask about screening protocols and whether campers will be tested prior to checking in for camp. Staff and campers should be screened for symptoms prior to and during camp.

Even under non-pandemic times, sending a child to overnight camp can be a stressful rite of passage (for child and parents!). What recommendations do you have for helping prepare a child for that first sleepaway camp experience?

Prepare your children for this important event by talking to them about what to expect. Consider opportunities for children to attend a camp with a friend. Send your child to camp with a letter to open upon arrival. If your child has never been to overnight camp, consider sending them to a shorter camp (just two to three nights) the first time.


About Darlene Melk, MD
CMO for Chiricahua Community Health Center, Inc.

After graduating from the University of Arizona medical school in 2002 and completing my residency training at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in 2005, I really became interested in serving children with barriers to care. My first job working for Mountain Park Community Health Centers helped solidify my passion for the community health center model as a way to reach all children, regardless of their financial or social background.

I joined Chiricahua Community Health Center, Inc. in 2010 and fell in love with the work. Our team is focused on bringing quality preventive care to children and families in our rural and underserved area through innovation and collaborations. Outside of work, I serve as the Chief Medical Officer for a nonprofit organization focused on children with special health care needs in Montero, Bolivia and am blessed to have four beautiful sons.

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