For Paula Campbell, the Mildred Avenue pool in Mattapan felt like it broke a generational curse. It was the place where her two children, now 13 and 15, learned how to swim under a coach who cared about them, she said. It was where she and her husband took swimming lessons, learning enough to survive in the water. Campbell’s parents, who cannot swim, were able to watch their grandchildren not just swim, but compete and even win.
But this week, Boston Centers for Youth & Families officials told lifeguards there that Mattapan’s only open public swimming pool will close, starting this weekend, because of staffing shortages, and the lifeguards working there will be transferred to other locations in Roxbury and West Roxbury. City officials said they did not have an estimate for when the pool might reopen.
The news has stirred concern and anger in the neighborhood, which has a population that is 94 percent people of color.
“To really remove that opportunity in a predominantly Black and brown community is again feeding into a stereotype and causing a disparity,” Campbell said in an interview. “We’re just constantly, constantly falling into the shadows of other neighborhoods. And no one cares.”
The closure also comes after a particularly deadly summer of drownings in Massachusetts, a heartbreaking string of tragedies that experts attributed in part to a lack of lifeguards and swimming lessons canceled by the pandemic.
The Boston Centers for Youth & Families “temporarily closes pools when needed in order to keep swimmers safe, maintain minimum staffing requirements, and meet operational needs while also providing quality programming,” a spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu said in an e-mail. “BCYF is actively hiring, training and recruiting lifeguards.”
Afterschool programs will be moved to other pools, according to the mayor’s press office, though officials were not able to immediately say where they would relocate.
Due to a staffing shortage, BCYF Mildred Avenue pool is closing beginning Saturday, April 9. We are recruiting and training additional staff so we can reopen asap. Find available swim sessions at other BCYF pools at https://t.co/S6qDVaN6rY. pic.twitter.com/mNWwQQ6H1C— Boston Centers/BCYF (@BCYFcenters) April 6, 2022
Sandy Holden, a spokeswoman for the Boston Centers for Youth & Families, suggested residents use the closest available pools: the Leahy-Holloran Community Center pool in Dorchester, 2.3 miles away, or about 45 minutes by public transit; or the Mason Pool in Roxbury, 3.6 miles away and almost an hour away by MBTA.
“I was disheartened to hear and am very concerned about the plan to close the pool at the Mildred,” Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley said in an e-mail. “I hope that we can continue this staple program, and I look forward to working with my colleagues at City Hall to try to preserve access to this pool for our community.”
A nationwide lifeguard shortage and facility renovations mean BCYF currently has more closed pools that open ones. The department operates 16 indoor and two outdoor pools, but just seven are currently open. They are the Flaherty Pool in Roslindale; Mason Pool in Roxbury; Curtis Hall Community Center pool in Jamaica Plain; Draper Pool in West Roxbury; Charlestown Community Center pool in Charlestown; Leahy Holloran Community Center pool in Dorchester; and Quincy Community Center in Chinatown.
The shutdown comes just after BCYF pools began swimming lessons again after pandemic-related closures. Advocates have said swimming lessons can be a powerful tool in fighting drownings, especially in communities of color that were historically kept out of swimming pools and beaches.
Last year the state’s health department reported 47 drownings and near-fatalities from January through May, 18 of them in May alone, more than double the total from the previous year. Many of them were described as people who were not strong swimmers, something swimming classes and regular access to pools can help address.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” said Shane Niles, a second-grade teacher who regularly swims at the Mildred Avenue pool and was signed up to start lessons there on Friday. “Why would you close [one] pool if another place doesn’t have enough lifeguards?”
He said he found out about the closure from lifeguards at the pool when he was there on Tuesday, and that he still hasn’t heard from the city directly or received any information about a refund.
The pool’s closure is harmful to Black communities who face gaps in swimming skills because they were blocked from accessing public pools in the past, Niles said.
”My aunts are in their 50s learning to swim for the first time and then they take it away because of claiming the lack of lifeguards at other pools,” he said. “So they want to take our lifeguards away and put them elsewhere.”
Niles said many of his friends and family members use the pool, and so do his students, who live within walking distance.
”They’re safe, they’re getting exercise and being active, having a good time with their friends,” Niles said. “They probably won’t go travel to a different pool that’s out of their range.”
BCYF pools aren’t the only facilities affected by the staffing shortages. The Thomas M. Menino YMCA in Hyde Park announced earlier this week that it would be closing its pool for the same reason. The Y hoped to reopen that pool as soon as possible, according to a Monday Facebook post. Indeed, state officials, bracing for another summer of shortages, are offering bigger paychecks and new bonuses to fill lifeguard stands.
City Councilor Erin Murphy said the city must push to get more people trained and licensed as lifeguards. She worried that a lifeguard shortage will continue to occur as the weather warms.
“For safety reasons, we can’t have pools open if we don’t have properly trained and right amount of lifeguards,” she said.
Murphy said in January, BCYF did an assessment of pool usage and Mildred Avenue pool had the lowest usage, with just 50 users over a month, of any of the pools in the department’s system.
Last fall, the pool at the Condon Community Center in South Boston was closed because of lack of lifeguards and it had a higher usage than Mildred Avenue, said Murphy. The Southie pool remains closed.
And Murphy said the BCYF Draper Pool in Roslindale is also in danger of closing because of the staffing shortage. More than a third of BCYF’s 70 permanent lifeguard positions are currently open, according to Murphy, but the department will need to hire even more seasonal lifeguards once summer camps and pool programming picks up in the summer.
“They’re continuing to shift people around,” she said.
Campbell’s daughter, who is 15, wants to become a lifeguard, the Mattapan resident said. While there were no lifeguard trainings offered at the Mildred, the lifeguards there were instrumental in connecting her with classes and resources, and in cheering her on.
“Rather than closing these places, why don’t they figure out how they can better market these places to the community?” Campbell said.
Sahar Fatima of the Globe Staff and Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed reporting.