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Ready for summer camp? What to ask, how to prepare for COVID-19 precautions

Jaden Phillips, 13, left, and Jaden Hernandez, 8,  canoe at the YMCA's Camp Moody in Buda in 2018. The camp is open for summer this year.

Summer camps are less than a month away from opening, and this year, more and more camps will be happening in person compared to 2020, when many went virtual or offered limited in-person options. 

It's not quite a return to normal. Dr. Lisa Gaw, a pediatrician with Texas Children’s Urgent Care, helped us think through the possibility of returning to camp this year. 

A lot of popular camps already are filled for the summer, but many with organizations like the YMCA of Austin and city parks and recreation departments still have spaces. 

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What COVID-19 precautions should camps take?

The first place to start is with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has issued guidelines for camps to follow to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Each camp should have an emergency operations plan that includes their strategies for daily camp life and for an outbreak.

The CDC recommendations: 

• Vaccination for all eligible people (counselors and anyone 16 and older), who should be two weeks post second-vaccine before camp starts.

• For overnight camps, testing is recommended one to three days before the camp begins. Unvaccinated campers and staff are asked to undergo a two-week quarantine that includes wearing masks and physical distancing when not at home, and avoiding unnecessary travel and indoor social gatherings. Testing of all campers and staff is recommended three to five days after camp starts, and campers and staff should be tested three to five days after they return home.

• Daily health screenings such as temperature checks and asking about symptoms.

• Wearing masks for anyone age 2 and older except when eating, drinking or swimming.

• Creating cohorts of campers that stay together and don't mix with other groups.

• Physical distancing of at least 3 feet between all campers in a cohort and 6 feet between anyone outside their cohort and between staff.

• Assigned spaces per camper, including nap mats and bunks that are sanitized between uses.

• Limit shared objects and keep campers' belongings separated. Have individual supplies for each camper.

• Cleaning and disinfecting of bathrooms twice a day and after regular use. Regular cleaning of shared areas.

• Improve ventilation of indoor areas, including keeping windows open, using portable air cleaners and improving buildings' air filtration systems.

• Using outdoor spaces as much as possible.

Camp safety measures:Last year's camp guidance came from CDC and governor

Clara Brady, 8, climbs at the Rock About Climbing Adventures Camp in Reimer's Ranch in July 2016. Going for a camp that is mainly outdoors could be beneficial this year.

• Singing, shouting, playing instruments and other respiratory activities should be done outside with physical distance between campers who are wearing masks.

• Limit volunteers and visitors.

• For day camps, have strict policies around staying home when someone is sick or is exposed to someone who is sick.

• Contract tracing and other plans for when a case is suspected or confirmed and isolating suspected cases for overnight camps.

Dr. Lisa Gaw is a pediatrician and director at Texas Children’s Urgent Care Westgate.

How do you know your camp's plan?

Check the camp's website. Their plan should be posted and many will have a full section just on COVID-19 precautions.

Then start asking questions. If the camp was open last year, how did they handle safety protocols? How many campers and staff became sick? What did they learn from last year that they will put into place this year? 

If the camp wasn't open last year, ask any question you might have that isn't spelled out in their online plan.

Some questions you might ask:

• How many other campers and staff members will your child be in contact with?

• How many staff members have been vaccinated?

• When will your child be wearing a mask and when will they not?

• What is their physical distancing practice? What screening questions and health checks will the camp do every day?

• What happens if someone has been exposed?

• Is there a refund policy if camp cannot happen or is cut short because of COVID-19?

• How will the camp communicate with you about future health concerns?

Aleena Khatum, 11, tries her hand at juggling the diabolo at Fantastic Magic Camp in 2016. The camp will be back in-person this year, but with COVID-19 safety precautions such as wearing masks.

What's your backup plan?

Camps might have to shut down if there's an exposure, or your child might not be able to attend if they've come in contact with someone who's been diagnosed: This is the year when you need a backup plan for every week of camp you have planned. 

Can you work flex hours? Is there a vaccinated family member or neighbor who can care for your child? Is there a virtual camp your child can do while you work from home? 

To minimize the risk, this also might be a year when you opt for one camp all summer long that typically has the same kids in it week after week. Camp hopping (one camp one week, a different camp the next week) can expose your child to many more kids. And while kids are less likely than adults to be seriously ill from COVID-19, the variants are spreading among younger kids. The cases of COVID-19 nationally have been rising in children and teens, but falling in other age groups, in part because adults can be vaccinated. 

Campers try to figure out their new compasses at a weekly summer camp at McKinney Roughs Nature Park in 2018. The camp is back in person with only 10 kids per age group.

Get ready for camp

Kids, especially those who have been doing virtual school since March 2020, might not be used to being around other people. 

Going to camp this summer will almost be like starting a new school or starting school for the first time, Gaw says. Talk to them about what camp will be like ahead of time, including going over the physical distancing, masking, hygiene and health check guidelines your camp will be using. 

Just like you might do for a kindergartener going to school for the first time, do a drive-by of where the camp is held to help it feel familiar to them. 

Tour the website as well and look at the photos and descriptions of the activities they will be doing. 

If you can plan for your child to go to camp with someone they know, that will help ease the transition. 

Get kids used to being around other kids again. Have a playdate with a friend from school, preferably outside with some physical distance and wearing masks, to get kids used to playing with another kid again. 

Practice wearing their masks for an extended period of time and make sure they fit well and don't irritate their skin. 

Campers from Travis, Hays and Bastrop counties play at the YMCA 2019 Summer Camp Olympics at the Toney Burger Activity Center. More camps will be open this summer, compared to 2020, but camps will be using precautions such as masks, social distancing and not sharing supplies.

Not ready? Go virtual

If you're not ready to head to camp in-person, some places are continuing to do virtual camps or events. Austin Nature & Science Center has some short virtual programs throughout the week. Dougherty Arts Center is offering a free virtual camp from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Mad Science offers spy camp, science explorations, yuckology and more themed virtual camps. The Paramount Theatre's camps are all virtual and include theater, Story Wranglers (where you help write the script) and songwriting. Kids Acting offers virtual comedy improv camps, Dungeons & Dragons-themed camps and TV, film and commercials camps. 

Also think beyond Austin and find virtual camps in other cities that might work for you. 

Paramount Theatre is offering its popular Story Wranglers camp virtually again this year.