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Will summer camp be normal this year? Is it safe?

Parents, kids and camp staff really want to know.

What does summer camp look like this year? Parents, kids and camp staff really want to know following 2020, when in-person summer camps shut down or were reimagined as virtual summer camps because of the coronavirus. Kids were devastated. Parents faced child care dilemmas. Staffers lost out.

After all, summer camp, a $26 billion annual industry, according to the American Camp Association (ACA), is an invigorating childhood ritual and a reminder of why it’s called the great outdoors. Kids go, go, go in a sun-soaked, grass-stained, fresh-air-pumped place, make new pals, learn new skills and — cue the fireflies — marvel at nature’s tiny light shows. Sign us up, already!

Are summer camps safe?

The good news is that for summer camp 2021, things are looking up and, despite necessary safety measures, there’s room for fun. “It’s still going to be summer camp and COVID-19,” Tom Rosenberg, ACA president and CEO told TODAY Parents. “Modifications will still be necessary to operate safely.”

“The good news is that new research shows that camps can operate safely as long as they follow the best practices that we learned from last summer,” Rosenberg adds. “Those approaches include being diligent about face masks for campers and staff and keeping kids in small groups and practicing social distancing. It’s about layers of protection, where each one has its limitations but taken together consistently and diligently you can form an effective mitigation strategy.”

This year’s protocols will look familiar to ones outlined last year in a joint release by the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA). Guidelines were recently updated and revised for summer 2021. There’s a new section on vaccines, which weren’t part of the landscape last summer.

The CDC released summer camp guidance in early May that calls for masks to be worn at all times, even outdoors and by vaccinated adults and children as young as 2, while also recommending kids remain 3 feet apart. The only mask exceptions are for eating and swimming, and 6 feet of distance between staff and campers is recommended during meals.

Overnight summer camps: 2020 as a teachable moment

Last summer only about 18% of overnight summer camps were operational, and in comparison the outlook for sleep away experiences this year is more wide open. “Almost every state has now said, officially, that overnight camps can open so that’s really the green light that we were waiting for,” says Susie Lupert, executive director ACA New York and New Jersey.

Overnight camps struggled to prevent infections in 2020, which has been studied as a teachable moment about operating safety. “We’re not going in saying, ‘It’s Covid free, we’re all good,’” says Lupert. “We’re very much looking at this as another summer where we’re going to be extremely cautious about how we run.”

Summer Camps: choices & questions

Besides being a big source of fun, summer camp is a big business. There are over 15,000 summer camps in the U.S. that serve over 26 million campers and employ 1.2 seasonal staff, according to ACA figures.

“We are seeing numbers this year showing that camp registrations are filling already,” says says Colette Marquardt, Executive Director, American Camp Association, Illinois. “If you’re hoping to get your child into a camp this summer I definitely encourage them to start to do that sooner rather than later.”

In addition to checking out what protocols will be in place and cancellation policies, ACA recommends asking your camp director these questions about about COVID-19 and summer 2021:

  • What is your summer camper drop-off/pickup policy? New policies may be in place to limit exposure.
  • Are you changing your staff time-off policies? Prepandemic, summer camp staff could leave the premises during off-time. That may have changed.
  • What will be different this year? This could include changes to mealtimes and group activities.
  • What are some things you are not doing this summer at camp that you’ve done in the past? Some special events may be canceled.

Virtual summer camp: still viable, still needed

One of the great pleasures and pluses of summer camp is that kids get to put down the screens and instead slather on sunscreen and play outside.

However, virtual summer camp, or hybrid versions of in-person and virtual, will still be part of the 2021 summer camp landscape. There are many resources out there with information about free virtual summer camps, reading programs, and other helpful ideas.

“Safety is the ultimate priority. Summer camps are coming up with very creative ways to continue to serve the campers,” says Marquardt. “But the ultimate goal of most camps right now is to get them in person in the camp environment,” she says. “We know that kids need the interactions. We also know that the families rely on camps for child care and support services.”

This story was originally published in April 2021 and has been updated.