Quickly swimming in the shallow end of the pool at the Village East Swim Club in Manhattan, 10-year-old Jacob De La Rosa surfaced behind his instructor and clung to the pool noodles at his waist, rocking and laughing .
The scene would have been impossible just a year ago. Jacob, who has autism, was terrified of getting into the water, said his mother, Lee Hodge, 36. But that changed last summer when he was selected to take part in a free beginner swimming lesson through Friends of + POOL, a non-profit group.
“In the first week after joining the program, he was, like, completely a fish,” she said.
Ms Hodge said as a single parent, paying for swimming lessons – which can cost up to $50 for a group lesson and over $100 for private sessions – would have been out of the question, a situation for many families in New York. .
But at the start of the summer, swimming lessons – free or not – became scarce due to a shortage of national lifeguards in the city and across the country. Swimming pools have had to close or reduce their opening hours because they don’t have enough lifeguards, who often also serve as monitors.
New York City’s public pools opened for the season on Tuesday, but the city had to cancel its free swimming lessons program. Meanwhile, private programs have long waiting lists, some numbering in the hundreds, for increasingly expensive courses.
Prior to the pandemic, the city was making strides to increase accessibility to swimming lessons for low-income communities and address historically entrenched racial inequities. Today, experts and swim program managers worry that lack of access to water safety lessons and affordable swimming lessons means many children and parents won’t learn potentially life-saving skills.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more children between the ages of 1 and 4 die from drowning than from any other cause of death except birth defects.
The shortage of swimming lessons could also have a negative impact on progress in improving swimming ability among young people. As more young people learn to swim, racial gaps have persisted, according to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation: More than two-thirds of black children have little or no swimming ability, the study found. .
“I have a stomach ache about this,” Carol Irwin, a researcher at the University of Memphis and lead author of the USA Swimming study, said of the moratorium on classes in New York. “Some of these children will drown.”
The decision by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to cancel its free Learn to Swim program, which served 20,506 children and 670 adults in 2019, is perhaps the biggest blow to the teaching of swimming in New York this season.
Janiyah Walton, 8, who lives in Manhattan with her mother, Shika Barton, 39, started learning to swim before the pandemic thanks to the city’s free swimming lessons. Ms Barton had hoped to re-submit Janiyah’s name to the lottery for classes this summer, but an email from the city announcing the start of registration never came.
‘It’s sad because she’s going to be late and I really want her to learn to swim,’ Ms Barton said, adding: ‘Who pays $700 to $800 for swimming lessons – for about five lessons ?”
Crystal Howard, deputy commissioner of the Parks Department, said with a smaller lifeguard corps, it became impossible to offer the free classes, which require lifeguards on duty.
“Safety is our top priority,” Ms Howard said. “It’s for this reason that we prioritize access to the millions of people who visit our pools each year rather than redirecting resources to ancillary programs.”
The state has also offered free and paid swimming lessons at a dozen state parks in recent years, including New York. Now classes will only be offered at Riverbank State Park in Manhattan, which sees about 300 children a year, unless the state can hire more lifeguards this summer.
The scarcity of classes across the city has caused a crush of interest in a relatively small number of slots.
When Friends of + POOL opened registration for free classes last week, there were more than 1,000 interested families for 150 time slots, said Friends of + POOL chief executive Kara Meyer.
Interest in SwimJim Swimming Lessons, a private fee-based program with locations in Upper Manhattan, Brooklyn and Texas, has increased 25%, said Jim Spiers, its chief executive and president.
The growth would be great, he said, if the constant turnover of instructors and lifeguards didn’t leave the company struggling to deliver lessons.
Imagine Swimming, another fee-based private program, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, cut class times by 10 minutes to offset an increase in operating costs, including pool facility rents.
“If you can’t get more pools and you can’t get more staff to meet the demand, the only way to meet that demand is to cut lesson times,” said Brendan O’Melveny, Aquatic Director of Imagine Swimming. .
Swim officials and program directors agree on the biggest barrier to hiring more lifeguards: salary.
The city aims to hire between 1,400 and 1,500 lifeguards per year, but was only able to recruit just over 1,000 lifeguards in 2021. This year, it has hired about 500.
Recertification for former lifeguards continues until July 4, but many found other jobs earlier in the pandemic, when pools were closed for months, and the recertification process is lengthy, officials said.
Some municipalities and private programs increased salaries or offered new benefits to attract recruits, but the city did not. The starting wage for lifeguards has been $16 an hour since 2019.
Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the union that bargains for the city’s lifeguards, said his union had interviewed former lifeguards who had decided not to apply this year, and “80% of the problem was the wages”.
Negotiations between the city and the union to raise the starting salary for lifeguards to $20 this season have failed. A city spokesman said the administration had not commented on discussions with the union.
Last week, Governor Kathy Hochul announced an immediate increase of up to 34% to the starting salary of lifeguards in the state. The YMCA, which starts lifeguards at $18 an hour, now offers its in-house certification courses, which can cost up to $450 elsewhere, free to anyone who applies and meets the screening requirements.
Other private organizations raise salaries, cover the cost of certifications, and rely on networks of skilled volunteers to stay competitive.
Another problem, according to Mr. Spiers of SwimJim: “People just don’t see it as glamorous as they used to. It’s not like Baywatch anymore.
For his small organization, one hurdle has been finding pool facilities.
In the city, some public high school campuses have swimming pools, but over the past two decades many have fallen into disuse.
All 27 operating pools in the school system are hosting swimming and water safety training for students, an Education Department spokeswoman said. Nearly 40 public school students were certified as lifeguards this year, but the department does not track how many students take swimming lessons as part of school programs.
Paulana Lamonier, founder of Black People Will Swim, a Long Island-based nonprofit program, said the college pool facilities she hoped to lease this summer were mostly closed for renovations. Instead, she will contract with private houses to teach her classes.
Prior to the pandemic, Imagine Swimming had two of its own facilities and approximately 14 satellite facilities that it leased to colleges, high schools, apartment buildings and hotels.
This year, Mr O’Melveny said, the group was able to lease a third of the satellite facilities, at an increased rate of around 30%.
“Just knowing that so many kids in New York probably won’t have the opportunity to take swimming lessons this summer, because of the shortage of lifeguards, is scary,” O’Melveny said.