RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Starting May 1, overnight summer camps will be allowed to operate in Virginia, bringing some sense of normalcy back to children in the commonwealth as they take a break from school.
Under Governor Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 72, overnight summer camps are required to operate in cohorts.
Food and General Environmental Services Division Director Olivia McCormick, with the Virginia Department of Health’s (VDH) Office of Environmental Health Services, said that campers can expect to be put into groups of no more than 25 people when they arrive.
“You’ll see some different things taking place in summer of 2021. It won’t be exactly like 2019,” McCormick said. “Kids will need to do things like stay in cohorts when they’re in camp, and that gives them a small unit, which, within that unit, they’ll be able to do things like not worry about physical distancing, or not have to wear their masks because these are going to be the kids that they’re probably going to be sharing sleeping quarters with.”
McCormick said that since children cannot sleep with face coverings on, deferring to mask-wearing as a mitigation strategy would be futile. That’s why Executive Order 72 calls for cohorting, during which groups will stay together for 14 days.
“That might mean that they might have more limited interaction with other kids outside of their cohort, and those interactions will only take place with things like physical distancing and masks, as mitigation strategies in place when more than one cohort comes together,” McCormick said.
This also means that staff members at overnight camps in Virginia will be assigned to a cohort and, at least for the first 14 days of camp, will not work closely with other groups.
“When you limit the interaction of kids outside their cohort, things like isolation, quarantine are really simple and easy for the camp operator to conduct,” McCormick said. “If you do have a positive case in camp, it also reduces the risk that that positive case will leave the cohort, and so it really helps ensure that the vast majority of kids or more kids can have that safe, happy, totally healthy summer with minimal obstacles.”
Although overnight camps are not required to maintain those cohorts after the first 14 days of camp, VDH strongly encourages camp operators to do so regardless.
All overnight camps in the commonwealth will also be required to conduct daily COVID-19 screenings, asking children if they have certain symptoms of the virus, such as new cough, sore throat, fever, gastrointestinal distress and new onset of headache.
“The goal is to really make sure that kids […] know that if they get sick or they start to feel ill, they report that to an adult as soon as possible,” McCormick said. “There’s just also an additional layer of mitigation there, where we’re actively reaching out to them and asking them questions about how they feel.”
Overnight camps throughout Virginia will be required to have quarantine and isolation plans in place before opening. In the event that a child or staff members shows symptoms of COVID-19 or tests positive for the virus, McCormick said that individual will need to be separated from the group.
“If a child is suspected or a known COVID-19 case, the cohort that that child is in is probably going to be all close contacts of the COVID-19-positive child, and camps will need to implement their quarantine and isolation plan,” McCormick said. “A key part of this whole process is, before camp even opens, the camp operators, having that plan in place, and knowing pretty well what it’s going to look like so that if there is a COVID-19 case in camp, they are ready and know what they want to do.”
While the Executive Order places no restrictions on capacity at overnight summer camps, McCormick said that limits on the number of campers and staff allowed will depend on whether the facility where the camp is being held has enough room for quarantine and isolation, should the camp need to implement that plan.
All mitigation strategies in place for overnight camps in Virginia this summer apply to fully vaccinated individuals, as well.
“Even if, for example, an entire camp’s staff is vaccinated, that doesn’t remove the need for those staff members to observe all of the protocols in place for overnight summer camp because most of the children that they’re going to be around, if not all, are likely going to be unvaccinated,” McCormick said. “There is no special category of exclusions where vaccinated staff, for example, don’t have to follow the requirements.”
Executive Order 72 also mandates the wearing of face coverings by any non-camp personnel who enter the camp, regardless of vaccination status.
However, the requirements vary between overnight camps and day camps, the latter of which is considered childcare.
“Aside from the fact that both settings involve kids, we do have some different kinds of risks, mainly there being, in an overnight camp, you have the added risk of kids are going to be sharing sleeping quarters, and that means that strategies like face covering are not possible in terms of addressing all of the risks,” McCormick said. “However, there’s also a little bit more of an opportunity, especially with longer sessions of overnight summer camp, to create more of a bubble environment.”
Given that each environment presents its own set of risks, McCormick said that the mitigation strategies will be different.
“Part of the challenge of COVID-19 is that most activities we’re used to have some level of risk associated with them,” she said. “A lot of the work that we’ve done with the Virginia Department of Health has been to try to provide some standards that can mitigate those risks to the greatest extent possible and allow some level of normalcy within activities like summer camp.”