Summer camps have been planning with Covid-19 protocols in mind. In this August 2017 photo, staffer Joe Gilligan helps a camper with safety gear at Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut. The camp did not offer programs in 2020.
CNN  — 

The thought of summer camp in the not-too-distant future will likely bring smiles to many parents’ faces.

After all, splashing in a pool, getting messy with arts and crafts, and running around a soccer or baseball field is probably a welcome break from nonstop Roblox games, too much time spent on social media, and endless Zooming.

Indeed, camp is an opportunity for children and teens to socialize with friends in a way that the school year has not necessarily allowed.

But will it be safe for your child to attend day camp or sleepaway camp this summer?

“This year, camp directors are carefully planning all aspects of camp with Covid-19 in mind,” said Rhino Merrick, camp director of Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut, which operates both day camp and sleepaway camps on the same property.

“The research demonstrates that camps which are implementing multilayered nonpharmaceutical interventions – including mitigation strategies such as masking, physical distancing and maintaining cohorts or separate groups – when they do these things consistently and diligently, the research shows they are able to safely operate in person,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association.

There were 102 Covid-19 cases reported in close to 500 camps serving 90,000 campers in 2020, according to a Tufts University study, funded in part by ACA. That number represented less than 1% of campers and staff, and an outcome related to camps adopting strategies that halt the spread of the virus, including quarantining, contact tracing, cohorting and sanitization practices.

“Last summer when we were in the midst of the pandemic, we ran our day camps safely with no incidents, and this was shared entirely by the day camp industry in the tri-state – and sleepaway camps operated with tough protocols across the country and with rare exceptions, had excellent results, said Jay Jacobs, CEO of the TLC Family of Camps and director of Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, New York.

“This summer, I think we are going to be in a much better situation, and that is basically because you are going to have staff being vaccinated,” Jacobs added.

Campers at Lake Bryn Mawr Camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, are shown in July 2019. The camp, which did not open in the 2020 season, will open this year with systematic Covid testing.

“We are all in a very different place now, we know so much more now, and we know that after the year we’ve experienced, that campers and staff need camp – they need to be outside and connect with other campers,” said Jane Kagan, director of Lake Bryn Mawr Camp for girls in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, where my daughters, 11 and 8, will be attending this summer. “They need to get off Zoom and get into lakes and get dirty and eat smores.”

“We know so much more now that we didn’t know last year at this time. Camp directors are experts at planning, and we are all going to be prepared,” Kagan said.

Here are some factors to keep in mind when considering camp for your child this summer, according to camp experts:

1. Will testing be required prior to entry and during camp?

At Bryn Mawr, testing will take place in stages: Campers and staff will be required to have a negative molecular, or RT-PCR test, prior to arrival at camp. Then campers and staff will be tested on arrival day, on day five and on day 14 of camp.

“Our goal is to enable camp to run as normally as we can, once the safety of our community is in the right place,” Kagan said.

“For the first five days, only bunks will be going together to activities,” Kagan said. “After day five, assuming all campers and staff test negative, we will expand to divisions, where each age group can be together. After receiving negative results from day 14, the hope is we are a clean and healthy camp and we can sing together in the dining room and have campfires.”

After day 14 tests results are received, however, masks will still be required to be worn when the entire camp community comes together, Kagan added.

As an extended bubble, the sleepaway camp model is in a good position to use testing as an overlay to an already vaccinated staff, according to Jacobs, who will be implementing similar testing measures. But children at TLC’s day camps will also be required to have a negative Covid-19 test before entering camp, he said.

2. What are the camp’s safety protocols?

“We have been working tirelessly to make sure we have the most relevant information (about the virus) and have enlisted medical experts and epidemiologists to help us develop the safest protocols,” Kagan said.

As chair of the Veterans of the Camping Experience, Kagan hosted a webinar with executives from Disney and the National Basketball Association with over 100 camp directors about the NBA’s successful 2020 bubble experience, so she and other camp staff could apply what they learned, to sleepaway camp settings.

“If LeBron James can be in a place for three months and not have contact with the outside, I believe our 20-year-old staff are going to make it this summer,” Kagan said. “The big takeaway – that we will be doing throughout the summer – is that we are really minimizing the people who come in from the outside.”

Here are some health and safety questions to consider: Will masks be required to be worn by campers, especially in indoor settings and during bus rides to and from day camp? Will physical distancing be required, for both indoor and outdoor settings and especially when masks are not worn? Will lunch be eaten outdoors or with adequate distancing when indoors? Will campers travel in cohorts either initially or throughout the entire camp season?

“For us, we are looking to create small pods of kids that will do activities together versus elective-based where kids are moving all over the place based on the schedule they create for themselves,” Merrick said. “While this system will be new to our sleepaway camp programs, it is similar to how we have run our day camp in the past and will allow us to be able to better contact trace throughout the summer.”

Other questions may include details about hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting protocols at camp, as well as whether adequate ventilation systems are in place for indoor spaces.

3. Can the camp adjust protocols based on the incidence of the virus in the local neighborhood?

Last summer, day camps were so successful because there was very little of the virus around in July and August, according to Jacobs. But the positivity rate during testing can change at any point in time.

“We will be monitoring the prevalence of the virus, community by community,” said Jacobs, whose TLC Family of Camps includes three-day camps and three sleepaway camps in New York and Pennsylvania. “If the prevalence is higher, our protocols are designed to meet the threat.”

If the prevalence is lower, the protocols can be adjusted. “We should develop our protocols like layers of an onion – as the threat goes down, you peel off the things that you don’t need because you don’t have to protect against them,” Jacobs said.

“We are really watching the transmission of the virus, and how things are evolving. It is possible that protocols could look different in June if the transmission rates are low. We are preparing for the most challenging and hoping for the most normal,” Kagan added.

4. Will staff be vaccinated?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that camp staff will be considered essential workers and therefore eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, though each state governor ultimately decides which workers are deemed essential in their state, according to ACA.

Lake Bryan Mawr Camp will minimize traffic in and out of the camp site during operation as a "modified bubble."

“In our camps, we are requiring all staff to be vaccinated before the summer,” Jacobs said, adding that a vaccinated staff “will take a great deal of the stress out of the equation.”

5. What is the plan if a camper or staffer develops Covid-19 symptoms or tests positive for the virus?

Is there a place to isolate a camper or staff member? Will the related cohort and anyone the person was in contact with be tested and quarantined?

“For overnight camps that have longer sessions, camps are expected to have quarantine facilities for individuals who are symptomatic, campers who have had prolonged exposure to persons who are symptomatic or Covid-positive persons, especially when the camp draws campers from outside the local area,” Rosenberg said. “For overnight camps with shorter sessions, parents may opt to pick up their camper or staff person, although the camp will still have isolation facilities.”

“Right now, the CDC guidance is to have a plan for if a camper gets sick. For Camp Sloane YMCA that means quarantining a child in our health center until such time as a parent can pick them up and bring them to a place where they can continue to quarantine,” Merrick said. “By using the pod-based approach, we will be better informed as to which campers may have been exposed to the virus and the entire pod will need to leave camp and get a negative test before coming back to camp.”

6. Lastly, are you comfortable with the camp’s values and its directors?

“It is critical to assess whether or not the camp’s philosophy meets a family’s values,” Merrick said. This includes assessing health and safety protocols and whether or not the camp’s activities are appropriate and engaging for a child.

Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter

Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.

Kagan feels the level of trust between parents and camp directors is the most important part of the decision-making process when it comes to choosing a camp.

“We drive everything. … There needs to be a comfort level between parents and camp directors, who are ultimately responsible for taking care of your child, whether in a pandemic or not in a pandemic,” Kagan said.

Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.