What's 'Safe' — And Not — For Kids This Summer

Catherine Pearson
(Photo: Bicho_raro via Getty Images)

As summer 2020 really kicks into high gear, moms and dads are facing truly unprecedented parenting questions. There has never been a rule book when it comes to raising kids — and there sure isn’t one now.

Medical groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have put out “considerations” for various scenarios, but in the absence of concrete, national guidelines parents have to make their own decisions. Unfortunately, the stakes are high, and what we know about COVID-19 changes by the day.

Thankfully, experts seem to agree on a few basic principles: Outdoor activities are better than indoor activities. Smaller groups are better than bigger ones. Shorter visits are better than longer ones. Masks help.

Beyond that, it’s kind of the wild west.

“This is tough, because we’re all navigating things in real time,” said Dr. Mary Caserta, a professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases with the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“I’m grateful my own children are grown,” she admitted.

Wondering WTF you’re going to do with your own kids this summer? HuffPost Parents spoke with four medical experts to break down some more common scenarios and how risky each of them is.

Going to the beach

Beach lovers, rejoice! All of the experts HuffPost spoke to for this story agreed that hitting the beach is a relatively low-risk activity — if you stick to a few guidelines.

First, don’t go to a crowded beach. And before you go, make sure your kids understand that while other kids might be there — and they might be really eager to play — they have to stick to your family unit.

Lastly, yes, you should all wear masks, or at least have them with you.

“If you’re at the beach and it’s relatively sparsely populated, I would have the mask there with you and whip it out if a whole throng of people come and circle you, or whatever,” said Dr. Susan Coffin, clinical director of the infectious diseases division with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I don’t think it necessarily needs to be on the whole time.”

The same principles generally hold true about heading to a public pool, particularly if it is outdoors and you can maintain social distance. But a pool does have more high-touch surfaces, from railings to chairs, which could make transmission more likely. And in some parts of the country, it’s a moot point as public pools are staying closed this summer. (The CDC’s considerations for public pools during the pandemic raises some interesting points that are worth checking out.)

Camp

Camp is a relatively high-risk activity, but the experts were surprisingly split as to why. Coffin said she believes that in many ways, day camp is less risky than sleep-away camp.

“The most challenging setting to go to would be an overnight camp,” Coffin said. “Any sort of kind of congregant living — residential, dorm-style living — is going to be fraught with substantially more risk than most other experiences.”

Day camps, on the other hand, can be creative about limiting risk, she said. Virtual camp is obviously the lowest risk option, but in-person camps can keep groups small, keep kids together throughout the day, and keep them outdoors as much as possible — all of which might help. Of course, they’ll have to get kids to wash their hands constantly and clean surfaces all the time, Coffin said.

But Dr. Sandra Kesh, an infectious disease specialist with Westmed Medical Group, basically argued the opposite: that sleep-away camp, with certain measures in place, is probably less risky.

“If you do it the right way, you are really reducing the risk,” Kesh said. “Day camp is a lot harder to control because kids are coming in and out, they’re going home, you don’t know who they’re having contact with at home — and who they’ve had contact with.”

“The right way” to open overnight camps, in her book, means taking precautions like having everyone arrive on the same day after having strictly social distanced for at least two weeks. Camps can prevent counselors and employees from leaving for the duration, Kesh said, and restrict all visitors. “It becomes a doable thing, but it takes a lot of planning and a lot of forethought,” she said.

Of course, many parents might take on the risks associated with camp simply because they need the childcare — and all of the experts acknowledged that should absolutely be a part of the equation. Call ahead of time to have a detailed chat about what your kid’s camp is doing to keep everyone safe. (Again, the CDC’s guidance around camps is a good resource.)

Having a playdate

Kids are really, really eager to see other non-adults at this point. And the experts say there are a few ways to do that with relatively low risk.

The first is to have a candid conversation with whoever your kid is playing with about what your family has been doing and who you’ve seen in the past few weeks. To keep the risk low, it should be a one-on-one playdate with a trusted family, Coffin said, and you should be honest about what stay-at-home has meant for you.

What your kids do together matters.

“Being active and moving in space is probably a good thing rather than, you know, playing cards,” Coffin said. But don’t make yourself crazy trying to keep kids physically distant, she said. Just assume that whatever that kid or family has been exposed to, your own kid and family are now exposed to as well.

So again, outdoors is best.

“Kids hanging out in a park, outside, with masks on, the risk there is pretty low even if there’s COVID-19 circulating in the community,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, vice chair of the AAP’s committee on infectious diseases.

We are getting more and more data that masks really matter, and it’s frankly tragic that wearing a mask has become kind of a political statement. Because at the end of the day, they have the potential to save a lot of lives. Dr. Sean O’Leary, vice chair of the AAP’s committee on infectious diseases

Playing sports (and other extracurriculars)

“Contact sports, I think, are going to be one of the more risky scenarios — certainly indoor, but also outdoor,” said Caserta. “Because you’re unable to keep your distance from other people, and usually with sports people are breathing heavily.”

If you know the children your kid is playing with and know the types of exposures they’ve had, and if you live in an area with very little or no spread, your kid will probably be OK, Caserta said. But she quickly added that the problem at this point is that you just can’t know.

Other indoor extracurriculars — like in-person art classes, non-contact sports or music practice — also carry a relatively high level of risk because your kid is in an enclosed area with other children for a set amount of time.  

“I think choir practice is out this summer,” O’Leary said. He pointed to the news that in March, 52 people came down with COVID-19 after a choral practice. They were adults, but the same basic risks still apply.

Sharing a meal

Coffin said parents may be paying close attention to things like camp and playdates while overlooking the risks of getting together for a cookout or eating outdoors at a restaurant with another family. 

“It’s important to be deliberate about eating together,” Coffin said. “Sharing of food is something that carries with it risk.” 

The experts advocated having a clear conversation about recent exposures with anyone you plan to share a meal with. At this point, many of the decisions parents make should center on a shared comfort level for risk tolerance.

Eating together means you’re going to be with other people who aren’t wearing masks, where you’re talking and eating and likely touching your faces, all over the course of a few hours. Caserta said that can make meals a potent opportunity for transmission. 

A few things to keep in mind...

First, researchers are still learning more about COVID-19 as well as about pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which has dropped out of the news cycle a bit but is still very much a thing. 

“That disease has not gone away. That disease is still happening in children across the country every day,” said Caserta.

All of the experts emphasized how important it is for families to stay on top of the news as much as possible, and to pay particular attention to the guidelines coming from their state and local health officials.  

Each expert also reiterated how much face coverings can help mitigate the risk associated with all of these activities this summer.

“We are getting more and more data that masks really matter, and it’s frankly tragic that wearing a mask has become kind of a political statement,” O’Leary said. “Because at the end of the day, they have the potential to save a lot of lives.” 

Of course, getting kids to wear masks can be a real battle, and the CDC does not recommend it for kids 2 and under. But for older kiddos, it’s worth the effort, especially because it’s probably a practice that’s going to be with us for a long time. (Here are some pointers.)

Lastly, all of the experts emphasized that parents have to weigh the risks of exposing their children to COVID-19 against the benefits of letting them get outdoors and finally interact with other kids. We don’t know how long all of this will go on. We’re playing the long game right now, and it’s about reducing risk, not avoiding it altogether. 

“There are a lot of tolls that this strange couple of months has taken on many people and on kids,” Coffin said. “That needs to be in the equation, too.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.