How to Make the Decision to Attend Summer Camp this Year

Camp Pinnacle07 Jun, 2020

The framework for this article comes from Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University. A mother of two, she writes a newsletter called “Parent Data,” which, as the name suggests, applies data to parenting decisions. We highly recommend reading her recent article, “How to Think Through Choices About Grandparents, Day Care, Summer Camp, and More.” Her coverage on the summer camp decision is light, so we figured we’d talk more about camp to help parents think through any tough decisions. This blog isn’t only about Camp Pinnacle, but you can read more of our reasons behind deciding to operate here.

The decision whether to send your kids to summer camp (and which one they should attend) in a normal summer is a deeply personal one. This year, COVID-19 has added significant complexity.

Before making any decisions regarding 2020, take the time to understand your chosen camp’s Coronavirus protocols and steps they’re taking to mitigate the risk of exposure and spread. You must also determine what level of confidence you have in their leadership team to manage complicated protocols. Parents must fully understand that there is no hard data to help them, or camps, judge how effective these protocols will be, though experts are certainly putting forth their best efforts based on current assumptions and the ever-evolving science about COVID-19. Frankly, 2020 summer camps (like every other institution) are in uncharted territory.

Look at your child’s health history, and identify any risk factors that might make potential consequences greater than average. Many parents are worried about their child getting sick at camp, but there’s an even greater worry that we urge you not to overlook: Your child could come home as an asymptomatic carrier… Meaning they could shed the virus to someone who’s at high risk.

The truth is that we will be living with the Coronavirus (with or without a vaccine) far into the future. Every family will have to decide at what level they are comfortable traveling, interacting with friends, and venturing out into public places. These decisions will likely shift with time, as more data is available, and must be based on each individual’s perception of their own risk factors.

Emily Oster uses this decision-making tree:

  1. Frame the question
  2. Mitigate risk
  3. Evaluate risk
  4. Evaluate benefits
  5. Decide

Framing the question

The question whether to send your kids to summer camp begins with the reason behind why camp is important to your family. Is it primarily for day care and entertainment, or do you see camp as fundamental to the personal growth and mental health of your child? Do you, as a parent, need camp as important time away from your child? Is camp the one thing your kids have been holding onto in a year of endless cancellations and disappointments? Would declining camp be devastating for your child, or was camp your idea in the first place, and your kids are not yet fully onboard?

If you see summer camp as an educational institution that provides countless benefits and opportunities for growth, one has to also evaluate the cost of the overall development and happiness of your child should they not attend camp this summer.

Mitigate risk

Despite the best-laid plans and the execution of them, no camp can guarantee that they will be 100 percent free of COVID-19 unless they remain completely closed. (The same goes for hair salons, restaurants, national parks, etc.) Even testing every child and counselor and practicing complete lockdown, with no outside visitors allowed onto the property, will not be able to guarantee a COVID-free environment.

What feels lost in the current debate is the fact that summer camp has never been 100 percent “safe.” The risks of swimming, mountain biking, or driving to a two-day backpack are more likely greater risks for this age group than this Coronavirus. So the decision to send your kids to camp must also take into account the “normal,” acceptable risks—before including COVID.

Ultimately, your decision as a parent comes down to having enough trust in your camp’s leadership team to have a solid plan and do their best to mitigate the spread of the disease, should it appear at camp. Knowing that camp is filled with kids, who by nature will not always follow every policy, every time, one has to approach this with a degree of reason.

Evaluate risk

Now, let’s think through the math! Oster uses this equation:

A (chance someone comes to camp infected) x B (chance of it spreading) x C (chance of serious illness or death)

Many camps look at the equation as “Risk = Probability x Consequences.”

As no camp can guarantee that a child won’t be exposed to COVID-19, parents must decide if they are comfortable with the potential consequences should their kids contract the virus.

Knowing a well-managed camp can mitigate (but not) eliminate risk, look at your child, their overall health, the overall health of your family, your relationships with people considered high risk, and your ability to quarantine or test your child after camp to mitigate the risks of infecting others.

Risk of death from Coronavirus

Acknowledging that one can find an editorial right now to argue any point about COVID-19, let’s look at CDC data. Between February 1 and May 28, there were 11 deaths from COVID-19 in the 5–15 age group. The virus accounts for 7/100 of 1 percent of all types of deaths for that age group. In other words, a child is 128 times more likely to die from an accident than COVID. This virus doesn’t even make the top 10 cause of youth deaths.

Risk of hospitalization from Coronavirus

Again, between February 1 and May 28, the incidence of kids between 5 and 15 being hospitalized with COVID is less than .002 percent (1.9 per 100,000 kids). Approximately 85 percent of kids who have been hospitalized had at least one preexisting condition.

Pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (PMIS)

PMIS seems to pose a greater risk to children than COVID-19. In a normal year, there are approximately 5,400 cases of Kawasaki-like disease in the U.S. KD may have a winter/spring seasonality, and community-wide outbreaks have been occasionally been previously reported. PMIS shares symptoms and treatment with Kawasaki but seems to be a bit different. We have no idea with widespread COVID exposure what the incidence of PMIS will be, but it remains very rare. We do know that PMIS can be successfully treated if recognized at an appropriate time. It seems PMIS tends to appear two to four weeks after children have had a mild or asymptomatic case of COVID.

Acknowledging that the consequences and likelihood of death or hospitalization are far smaller than the normal risks parents assume daily for their kids, the question is how they would feel if their child contracted COVID at camp. And if that happened, would they have a plan to contain the spread to family, friends, and contacts?

The risk of camp has to be seen as a relative risk. What would your child be doing in the same two weeks, if you opted out of camp? From which option would they be more or less likely to contract COVID?

As a parent, if you are not comfortable with the consequences of your child contracting COVID, or feel a lack of confidence in your ability to mitigate it, then the answer to attend summer camp should be a resounding NO. This will also mean many other activities of similar or greater risk will be off the table as well.

Evaluate benefits

One cannot evaluate risk without also evaluating the benefits obtained as a result of taking those risks. It is undeniable that the social costs of keeping our children sheltering in place are great. It will take years to fully understand the effects of this year and whether the outbreak has caused socio-emotional scars and deep-seated stress and anxiety in some of our children.

Are the benefits of the relative safety of doing something of potentially lower risk in lieu of camp worth the cost of forgoing all the benefits of camp? And how do you weigh these benefits when they are sometimes intangible? It’s hard to measure how much confidence, resilience, independence, and emotional growth a child will gain in any given summer (especially this year, because camp will be modified to meet COVID guidelines).

A decision cannot effectively be made without evaluating what your child would be doing in the two weeks they would otherwise be at camp. Can you come up with something that will have equal socio emotional benefits with less risk? If your child is living in a city, having play dates, traveling to the beach, or Disney and interacting with dozens of people, perhaps the bubble of camp may not only seem more beneficial but also less risky.


A limited number of camps are operating this summer. Many of those operating have reduced overall capacity, shortened their seasons, and may only be serving existing families with whom they have history.

This makes the decision to attend camp, should you even be able to get a spot, one that must be made quickly. Hopefully, this framework will help your family decide if camp is right for you this summer—as you weigh your values and use the data that feels best. Many will find easy no’s or easy yes’s, but for most of us, it will take careful thought and a recognition of parenting priorities.


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