Safe Summer Activities for Kids During the Pandemic

How to make plans for get-togethers, camp, vacations, and more, despite the uncertainties around COVID-19

Last summer, the pandemic saw many families hunkered down at home and avoiding gathering with anyone outside their household. This summer, COVID-19 vaccines will allow more freedom, but with that comes some confusion about how to navigate plans when some family members are fully vaccinated and others are not.

The Key Takeaways

• Thirty-seven percent of parents/caregivers don’t expect their kids to have a typical summer this year, according to a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports’ survey.

• Fully vaccinated teens can safely hang out together without a mask. For kids under age 12, who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination, social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines still apply.

• Unvaccinated kids can visit and stay with fully vaccinated friends or relatives from one other household as long as none of the unvaccinated kids are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

• If two families with fully vaccinated adults and unvaccinated kids want to vacation together, they should stay in separate accommodations.

• Booking a camp for your child? Pick one where kids spend the day in small groups, mostly outdoors and physically distanced, and wear masks when they’re indoors.

• Experts say that road trips are safer than air travel for families.

At this point in the summer, vaccines against COVID-19 are widely available in the U.S., and roughly half of the population has been vaccinated. But because none of the vaccines currently being used in the U.S. are authorized for children under age 12, that leaves millions of kids unprotected for now. It also leaves parents grappling with dozens of questions as they try to make summer plans for their families.

“I have missed being around my friends and look forward to getting together when all of us are vaccinated,” says Michelle Galvanek, who lives in Annapolis, Md. “But since my 9-year-old daughter won’t be vaccinated and she’s almost always with me—I’m a single mom—I don’t know if that means we’ll still have to wear masks and social distance.”

We’ve learned a lot about how to stay safe since last summer, but a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,079 American adults fielded in May found that many people still have concerns about what’s safe for their kids. Among those who live with children under 18, 37 percent said they don’t think their kids will have a typical summer, meaning that, to some degree, they won’t be participating in activities that children of the same age would have joined in before the pandemic.

Experts say we all should expect things to feel easier this year than they did last year, but they still won’t be what most people would consider normal. “My best guess is that it’ll be better than last summer in terms of what we’re doing, but it won’t be back to what it was like in summer 2019,” says Sean O’Leary, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics and a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Children’s Hospital Colorado.

More on COVID-19

That’s partly because for kids, the rules about social distancing haven’t changed much. Granted, many children who get COVID-19 will experience only mild symptoms—or none at all.

“But children who have conditions that put them at high risk [such as Down Syndrome, compromised immune systems, diabetes, or obesity] still have a higher risk of hospitalization or even death from COVID-19,” O’Leary says.

Nonetheless, “the effectiveness of the vaccines is holding, and it should lead to drops in community spread, driving down the risk for kids even further,” says Buddy Creech, MD, MPH, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program. “I believe there is reason for optimism.” Despite the ongoing pandemic, you can still enjoy the season and have fun as a family, whether you’re staying near home, visiting relatives and/or friends, considering summer camp, or taking a trip.

Kids Gathering With Kids

The idea of large groups of kids—especially unsupervised teenagers—hanging out together has been cause for parental alarm for the past year. And with good reason: “Teens look a little more like adults in terms of their ability to get and transmit COVID, compared to younger children,” O’Leary says.

CR’s survey found that many parents are concerned about letting their kids be around unvaccinated children who are not wearing masks. Thirty-eight percent feel this is somewhat or very unsafe outdoors, and 44 percent say so indoors. When asked about their comfort level with their kids being around vaccinated children who aren’t wearing masks, nearly 20 percent said they feel it is at least somewhat unsafe both indoors and outdoors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says for anyone who is fully vaccinated—meaning two weeks past their last required shot—participating in indoor and outdoor activities without a mask poses minimal risk for contracting COVID-19, and the risk of vaccinated people transmitting the virus to unvaccinated people is low.

For vaccinated kids, this means hanging out with friends is fine. But for unvaccinated kids, play dates and get-togethers should continue as before, with small groups, masks, social distancing, and mostly outdoor play the rule.

Currently kids 12 to 17 can receive the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine. (Moderna’s vaccine may be authorized for use in this age group at some point this summer.) Vaccine approval for younger children is further away, though Pfizer has said it hopes to ask for authorization for 2- to 11-year-olds in the fall.

Visiting With Relatives and Friends

According to recent CDC guidelines, people who are fully vaccinated can engage in normal everyday activities without wearing a mask, though they should still mask up in healthcare settings; while traveling on buses, trains, planes, and public transit; and when required by state or local law. So if everyone in your group (including your children) is vaccinated, being together without a mask won’t be a problem.

And even unvaccinated kids can spend time with grandparents, friends, or other relatives who are all fully vaccinated, and stay at their homes.

“If you’re getting together with one household, it’s safe to go masks off,” Creech says. “If you’re gathering with two or more households that include anyone unvaccinated or at high risk, you should still wear masks and do things outside as much as possible.”

At this point, large multifamily gatherings, weddings, and other big events are safe for vaccinated people but are still considered risky for the unvaccinated. “If there’s guidance in your area, that should be followed, but otherwise it’s what we already know—fewer is better, outside is better, and masks work,” O’Leary says.

Day Camps and Overnight Camps

Most summer camps were closed last year, and many of those that weren’t looked very different. “My daughter did a theater camp last summer with a group of 10 [instead of 30], and the kids wore face shields and stayed 6 feet apart at all times,” recalls Traci Gallagher of Milford, Conn. This summer, many more summer camps plan to open, but because kids under 12 won’t be vaccinated, the American Camp Association and the CDC recommend that camps with unvaccinated kids take all the COVID-19 precautions we’ve become accustomed to.

CR’s survey found that two-thirds of parents feel attending a day camp where all the recommended safety protocols are in place is somewhat or very safe for their children, while just over half felt the same about overnight camp.

Protective measures did much to prevent COVID-19 transmission at camps that did operate last summer, according to recent research. A study sponsored by the American Camp Association looked at the effectiveness of prevention measures taken by 486 overnight and day camps last summer, and found that in camps where both kids and staff regularly wore masks, there was a 73 percent and an 87 percent reduced risk of COVID-19 transmission for campers and staff, respectively, compared with camps that had no strict face-covering policies. Overall, about 90,000 campers were part of the study, and there were only 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases among them (and 72 among the staff).

And a CDC study published last August looking at four overnight camps in Maine found that practices such as pre-arrival quarantines, pre- and post-arrival testing, daily symptom checks, small groups, and facial coverings and social distancing outside of those groups resulted in only three positive tests among 1,022 kids and counselors.

Before booking a camp, find out what its COVID-19 safety protocols, including its vaccine policy, look like and how your child will interact with counselors and other kids. According to the CDC, the risk for kids at camp is lowest when there’s a small group of kids, all from the same local area, who stay together all day, mostly outdoors and physically distanced. When campers come from several geographic areas, mix between groups, and don’t maintain physical distance, that poses the greatest risk. “This summer, be on the safe side, picking a camp that keeps kids in smaller groups and requires wearing masks if indoors,” O’Leary says.

Family Vacation Plans

After more than a year of canceled trips, many families are understandably eager to travel again. Still, parents have questions about what’s safe: Taking a road trip? Hopping a short domestic flight? Snagging a cheap ticket to Europe?

The [virus] variants are throwing a bit of a wrench into predictions for how safe travel will be this summer,” O’Leary says. “The vaccines are proving highly effective against death, but we still need to be careful about the possibility of transmission to the large populations who are at risk and unvaccinated.”

If CR’s survey is any indication, many families may be flying this summer, with 65 percent of parents saying they feel traveling by plane is very or somewhat safe for their kids. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that while the CDC recently updated its guidance for travel, lifting many restrictions, the changes apply only to people who have been vaccinated. For families, that means trying to follow two different sets of rules. “Unvaccinated family members should test before travel, and test and self-quarantine afterward,” Creech says.

The CDC recommends testing for unvaccinated people before and after travel (by plane, train, bus, or other transit) and following all state and local recommendations and requirements. (Vaccinated people still need to wear a mask while flying but need to get tested only before boarding an international flight to the U.S.; all international travelers need to get tested three to five days after returning home.)

For parents traveling with unvaccinated children, road trips are still safer than flying. “Flying puts you in close quarters with others for an extended period of time, and there are several high-risk points throughout the trip—including being in the airport and on the plane itself,” says Ravina Kullar, MPH, PharmD, spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “During a multiday road trip, it is much easier to avoid these high-risk points, even if staying at hotels overnight.”

And it’s not just about how you’ll get there. It’s where you’ll stay and what you plan to do during your trip. “You’re playing the odds,” says Yvonne Maldonado, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases. “The more people you come in contact with, the higher the probability of exposure to infection and increased possibility your kids could get sick.”

Staying in a short-term rental or hotel room with a kitchenette is a good move. Making your own meals means less exposure to other people than dining out at restaurants every day. Camping, either in tents or in an RV, is another lower-risk option.

“We’re renting two cabins next door to each other so that we can safely vacation with another family this summer,” says Laura Rich, who lives in Boulder, Colo., with her 10-year-old son. “The kids will have plenty of space to play outdoors together, but we can separate for indoor eating and sleeping.” Experts agree that this is a good plan. “Family groups that include unvaccinated children should have their own living spaces,” Kullar says, “because those who are unvaccinated are still at a high risk of acquiring COVID.”

As for activities, less crowded, outdoor sites such as beaches and national or state parks are still safer than places that put you in close proximity to large crowds like theme parks and concerts.

With all the precautions and planning required to avoid COVID-19 infection, summer 2021 might not yet be all you’re longing for, but it can still be memorable for you and your family in many good ways.

Sally Wadyka

Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Yoga Journal, and the Food Network on topics such as health, nutrition, and wellness.