For two years now, families with kids like mine have been looking forward to a normal summer. Growing up, nothing typified that for me more than long, lazy days spent at the neighborhood swimming pool.
The good news is that sources at City Hall say we’ll be back to a “normal” swim schedule this year in Cleveland, after pools were closed for all of 2020 and open only for limited hours in 2021. Here and elsewhere, there’s a lot of pent-up demand for old-fashioned summer recreation.
The bad news is “normal” means something new now. For one thing, hours are still reduced at aquatic facilities in Cleveland compared with its suburban neighbors. And the pandemic has cast its shadow over summer in another way: Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, swimming lessons are going to be hard to come by.
Beaches and pools are facing a nationwide lifeguard shortage. Cincinnati has only been able to hire enough lifeguards to staff eight of its 32 pools, despite offering $725 signing bonuses, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Austin, Texas, is reporting only enough lifeguards to open less than half its pools; fewer than half of public pools will be open this summer. In New York City, pools aren’t opening until late June, and parents report the city has canceled plans for summer swim lessons altogether. Bernard Fisher of the American Lifeguard Association told CBS News that the shortage was “the worst he’d ever seen,” thanks to competition from higher-paying jobs and a pipeline problem from a lack of training opportunities since the pandemic began. Summer 2019’s lifeguards have moved on.
To make matters worse, the lifeguard pinch is running up against a surge in demand for swimming lessons for children, many of whom haven’t been taught in three years and are well behind on their skills—if they ever learned to swim at all. This isn’t just a matter of some lost fun in the sun. Experts say a third straight summer of inadequate swim instruction will compound long-standing disparities in swimming ability and the risk of drowning, a leading childhood killer. To learn to swim is to feel at home in the world, and a generation of kids is missing out.
My own kids are behind despite having a mom who used to teach swim lessons and worked as a lifeguard in high school. It’s been hard to teach them to swim when the public pools are all closed. Despite my pleading during the few occasions when we’ve had access to a pool, my 5-year-old daughter refuses to put her head underwater.
This summer feels important. I worry if she doesn’t get over this now, it could become a lifelong issue. Things were easier for my mom. Even though she worked, she could have us bike up to the neighborhood pool with our babysitter. She insisted I do lessons through level 10. I’m not sure I’ll be able to find a place for my kids to learn to swim in the city at all.
Other parents are finding themselves in the same situation. In Seattle, Kelli Refer said she blocked off her schedule on sign-up day to enroll her 4-year-old in swim lessons, only to have the whole slate fill up in six minutes. “We did a few private swim lessons last year. They were all I could find and were expensive and only 15 minutes long,” she told me. “This year, even the expensive private lessons are booked through August.”
Julia Toof, the mother of an autistic 4-year-old in Somerville, Massachusetts, said her family was so frustrated by long waitlists and the lack of options for adaptive swim lessons that her husband went out and got certified to teach swim lessons himself.
Lisa Zarda, executive director of the U.S. Swim School Association, told me, “Many of our swim schools have the largest waitlists they’ve ever had.”
In Cleveland, officials report swim lessons will be restricted this summer to just a handful recreation centers due to the lifeguard shortage. This for a city of nearly 400,000 people.
All this comes on top of a broader crisis in big-city swimming that predates the pandemic and afflicts many poor U.S. cities. In Cleveland, the YMCA has closed many of its urban locations over the last few decades, decamping for wealthier suburbs. Even though officials report public pools will “fully” open in Cleveland this year, their schedule has been pared back dramatically compared with suburban counterparts’: They are open Wednesday through Sunday, from noon to 7:30—and only for a period of about eight weeks. Compare that with Bay Village, a wealthy suburb, where the pool opens three weeks earlier, stays open three weeks later, operates an additional day a week, and offers swim lessons (residents only).
This unequal access between city and suburb contributes to the dangerous disparities in swimming skills that exist between minority children and their white neighbors.
Drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children in the U.S. On average, 11 American kids die a day in drownings, or almost 4,000 a year (twice as many suffer serious near-drownings that can cause lingering issues like brain damage). For children 1 to 4 years old, it is the leading cause of death, and for children 1 to 14, it’s the second-leading cause (behind car crashes).
Drownings aren’t an equal-opportunity killer, either. Black children are 1.5 times more likely to die in a drowning than their peers. Black children are nearly twice as likely as white children to report low swimming skills—64 percent vs. 40 percent. Not coincidentally, competitive swimming remains an overwhelmingly white sport. This pattern reflects the lingering impacts of historic segregation patterns at pools, says Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters, a book about the history of segregation in American swimming facilities.
During the heyday of swimming in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s, American cities made huge investments in large “resortlike” swimming facilities, says Wiltse. “They believed that the public needed to provide pleasurable, healthy outdoor recreation activities and that that would mitigate some of the class-based inequality Americans experience.”
But those facilities were either officially segregated (in the South) or de facto segregated (in the North). After middle-class white families fled cities in the 1960s and ’70s, the country saw another major investment in swimming clubs, with thousands of facilities built. But these were primarily private swim clubs located in the suburbs. Meanwhile, in poor industrial cities like Cleveland, white flight eroded the tax base and affected the city’s ability to build, maintain, and staff pools.
Paulana Lamonier learned to swim at Nu-Finmen swim clubs, one of the few Black-owned swimming clubs on Long Island, New York. She swam through college, in the CUNY York College swimming club. In 2019, concerned about disparities in the sport, she tweeted an offer to teach 30 people to swim. The tweet went viral, and led her to found Black People Will Swim, a swimming school based on Long Island aimed at reducing racial disparities.
But since the pandemic began, she’s had trouble even finding pool space. In 2021, she had to host the lessons in a friend’s backyard pool. This year, she’s again having trouble finding a secure and reliable pool to host lessons. “We’ve run into our own issues trying to partner with pools. A lot of college pools have been closed due to renovations,” she said. “We’ve contacted over 10 colleges, and at a lot of them, the pools are closed.”
Formal swimming lessons can be an equalizer. They reduce the odds of drowning by as much as 88 percent, studies have found. They are, in other words, a basic public health intervention—in addition to teaching a life skill and providing a place to make friends.
While some recreation centers in Cleveland offer swim lessons, there is no centralized place to learn the times and schedules. You have to call each facility individually. The difficulty of finding swim lessons and registration was listed as a top barrier to access among underserved groups, in a 2021 study by the American Red Cross.
If we can’t find a place to get lessons in the city, my family is well-off enough that we can just drive out to a private swim school in the far suburbs—but that’s not the case for everyone. In Cleveland, a private swimming lesson provider called Goldfish Swimming School has been expanding, with locations mainly in farther-flung communities. Goldfish, a franchise-based model, opened 13 new schools in 2021. The timing is flexible, and, crucially, there’s room in the classes. But it’s far away, and it costs $100 per kid per month—a lot in a city where the median family income is $31,000. (That’s why they aren’t located in the city of Cleveland).
Wiltse says he expects the pandemic will exacerbate swim-strength disparities between rich and poor. But he doesn’t think we should throw up our hands. “I’m not willing to let public officials off the hook,” he said. “It’s not inevitable. It’s because cities are not willing to invest the money.”