How to Keep Summer Camp Safe

A Tufts-led study of camps for kids that were open last year has lessons for this year’s campers and parents
Two boys wearing masks bumping elbows in the woods. A Tufts-led study of summer camps for kids that were open last year has lessons for this year’s campers and parents
“Our findings provide valuable guidance not only for future camp operations but also all settings with children, especially schools,” said Helen Suh. Photo: iStock
May 18, 2021

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COVID-19 didn’t just close schools over the past year, it also wreaked considerable havoc on summer camps. The vast majority—82% of camps in the United States—closed in 2020 because of concerns about spreading of the virus among children, according to American Camping Association.

Now, with the increased availability of the coronavirus vaccine and the most recent surge of cases slowly dissipating around the country, the summer camp industry, which annually hosts more than 26 million children and 1.5 million staff, is set for a comeback.

In an effort to offer clear safety guidance, Helen Suh, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, led a study to determine the effectiveness of everyday measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 among children and staff within camp environments. The study represented the largest survey of COVID-19 cases within on-site child-care settings at a national level.

The researchers polled 486 camps in the United States that were able to open last summer about on-site operations, camper and staff demographics, and COVID-19 cases among campers and staff. They also sought information on use of everyday COVID-19 safety measures, including pre-camp quarantines, facial coverings, physical distancing, cleaning, and facility modifications.

The responding camps represented 49 states and the District of Columbia, with 26% located in the Midwest, 23% in the Northeast, 22% in the South and 16% in the West, and range of racial and economic backgrounds.

“Children were deeply impacted by the pandemic, and the disruption to experiences of summer camp were significant loss for so many,” said Suh, first author on the study. “Our findings provide valuable guidance not only for future camp operations but also all settings with children, especially schools.”

Here are some of the key takeaways, according to Suh.

Face coverings work. Researchers found that the risk of COVID-19 cases was significantly reduced when campers or staff always wore facial coverings, especially at camps where face coverings were always worn, with approximately two-thirds reduction in risk of COVID-19 as compared to other camps.

The team cited an example at a camp that experienced the largest outbreak, with 26 confirmed cases in one week (9 campers, 17 staff) out of 66 overnight campers and 20 staff. At this camp, the COVID-19 safety measures instituted only included regular hand sanitizing, increased cleaning, and pre-camp quarantining at home for campers and at home and camp for staff. No facial masks were used.

Case rates among day and overnight camps were similar for children and staff. 74 of the 486 camps had at least one confirmed COVID-19 case, with 10 of these camps being overnight, 52 day and 12 combination overnight/day/rental camps.  However, case rates for children and staff attending or working in overnight and day camps, respectively, were statistically similar.

Coronavirus spread reflected community spread. Camper and staff COVID-19 cases occurred primarily in mid-summer, corresponding to weekly trends in the number of campers and staff and the overall U.S. case rates. The higher number of confirmed cases in mid-summer in the South and West reflected community rates at that time, while those in the Northeast and Midwest largely reflected the three primary waves of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Quarantining beforehand at home did not seem overly helpful. In a day camp with about 100 campers and 30 staff, four confirmed cases among campers and three in staff were reported during a one-week period. The camp always required quarantining before camp, staff facial coverings, increasing cleaning, regular hand hygiene, and instituting measures to decrease its capacity and visitor access.

Additionally, the campus reported always or often enacting increased physical distancing (such as use of cohorts or pods or modified program, dining, and bathroom arrangements). Camper facial coverings, however, were not regularly used.

Kalimah Redd Knight can be reached at kalimah.knight@tufts.edu.