For many, the great outdoors was a welcome escape during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Places to swim were particularly popular, but they came with a risk.
Mask mandates and other pandemic-related rules limited access to local pools, forcing many people to find swimming spots that had fewer lifeguards, fewer precautions.
“In 2020, every swimming area either didn’t operate, or operated on a limited basis,” said Christopher Fitzgerald, recreation director for Weston and outgoing president of the Massachusetts Recreation and Park Association. “Swim lessons were mostly not offered.”
Most pandemic restrictions were removed last June, and since then the demand for swimming lessons has surged throughout Greater Boston as families play catch-up in making sure their children learn this life-saving skill. Both public and private organizations that offer swimming are experiencing a significant jump in numbers. The South Shore YMCA is reporting a 52 percent hike in swim program participants over this time last year, said Trevor Williams, the organization’s chief operations officer.
Many organizations — including municipal recreation programs, YMCAs, and Boys & Girls Clubs — also are conducting outreach campaigns to bring swimming to more people, with an emphasis on water safety.
“We have a saying, ‘Some kids play soccer, some kids play the clarinet. Every child swims,’” said Merri-Lynn Lathrop, director of aquatics at the YMCA of the North Shore, a consortium of seven local Y’s serving multiple cities and towns. “At the Y, we believe strongly that all children should be given the opportunity to learn how to swim so they are safe around water.”
The North Shore Y has seen a 20 percent increase in swim lesson participation in all age groups compared to before the COVID-19 shutdown. “The demand is even higher as we still have waitlists due to a nationwide shortage of swim instructors,” Lathrop said.
“Usually, Salem has 150 participants in swim lessons. Right now they have 310 and a waitlist,” she said. “We are actively recruiting more instructors to try to better meet the need.”
Working with local school districts, the organization has started the YMCA Safety Around Water program for kindergarteners, in which lessons are built into the school day. “In addition to water swimming skills,” Lathrop said, “kindergartners get personal safety skills and water safety information to take home to share with parents.”
Likewise, the South Shore YMCA — which has pools in Hanover and Quincy — is implementing new programs to ensure that “everyone in our community who wants and needs swim lessons has access to this life-saving skill,” said the organization’s Williams.
Most day-camp programs at the South Shore Y include water safety instruction, and “we have even offered weekly water safety instruction to students in our Early Learning Centers as part of their curriculum, to start them at a young age,” Williams said. “This was put on hold due to the pandemic, but we’re looking forward to bringing it back to our Early Learning Center families this year.”
Those water skills are essential any time, at any age. The rush to get outside, coupled with restricted pool access, may have contributed to a spike in drownings last year. In May 2021 alone, there were 18 drownings in Massachusetts, more than the previous three Mays combined.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects. For children ages 1 to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death after motor vehicle crashes.
“Now we complicate that with the pandemic and the lack of swim lessons,” said Holly Coots of the Westwood Recreation Department and aquatics representative for the Massachusetts Recreation and Park Association. “We all need to remember the pandemic’s impact on children’s swimming abilities and their water-safety skills and how their swimming abilities and safety skills need to be refreshed both in and out of the water.”
At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro South’s Taunton Clubhouse, aquatics director Brendon Roy is using a state grant to provide free swimming lessons to anyone who takes out an annual membership.
“We’re teaching as many lessons as possible,” Roy said. “It’s staffing-dependent right now. I need more swim instructors. We actually have a lifeguard shortage coming off the pandemic. Just like swim lessons, lifeguards have not been in training.”
The shortage of swim instructors and lifeguards is a widespread issue. Five of Boston’s free public pools were temporarily closed due to staffing shortages as of April 8, and Mayor Michelle Wu said the city was “furiously working to recruit lifeguards.”
“Most of our communities are struggling to find lifeguards and swim instructors,” said Fitzgerald of the Massachusetts Recreation and Park Association. “In 2020, we couldn’t host trainings for new lifeguards which, combined with the limited operation that year, reduced the number of people in our pipelines.”
Now, many communities are offering higher pay, subsidized or free training, and flexible hours in an effort to boost their staffing levels, Fitzgerald said. “Lifeguarding is a great job where teens and young adults can work outside all summer and gain valuable work skills, including supervisory and management experience.”
The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages 24 deepwater pools and 80 freshwater and coastal waterfronts, is offering increased pay and up to $1,000 in bonuses for lifeguards this year.
An early sign-on bonus of $500 was given to candidates who committed by March 27, in addition to a $500 retention bonus for lifeguards who work through the end of the season. The state also raised the hourly rate for lifeguards, to between $21 and $26.
The Department of Conservation and Recreation also created a new Bureau of Pool and Waterfront Safety to prioritize water safety for all visitors, with the addition of three new positions: director of pool and water safety, chief lifeguard, and director of the Learn to Swim Program.
“The state parks system’s beaches and pools are popular places for people of all abilities to visit and enjoy the summer with friends and family,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides in a statement. “Lifeguards keep our beaches safe, and working in this essential role can be a rewarding career with good compensation, so I encourage anyone interested to apply.”
At the state level, Swim Safe Massachusetts is a collaboration of state agencies and nonprofits, including YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, and New England Swimming, tasked with raising public awareness and sharing water safety information. The Safe Water Initiative Massachusetts (SWIM) program released $475,000 last summer for nonprofit and private organizations to apply for funding to expand free beginner swim lessons to residents of all ages.
Scott Lucid of Peabody, aquatics director at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, said his organization also took advantage of a DCR grant to increase staff and allow more instruction time for children.
“We also partner with the Greater Lawrence Community Boating Program for swim classes and rowing lessons,” said Lucid. “The Lawrence schools are always eager to share what we offer. And the Lawrence Fire Department also comes through for biannual water safety exhibitions.”
Coots, of the Westwood Recreation Department, emphasized that even private pools can present a hazard. “Most drownings happen in backyard pools with family close by,” she said, so parents need to be vigilant.
“It’s important to have a responsible adult watching the water at all times, limiting distractions and having a means to rescue someone if an emergency occurs at home, or even in a body of water where lifeguards aren’t present,” said Coots. “In addition to local swim lessons, the American Red Cross has free online classes for adults, including those to become a water safety ambassador for parents and caregivers.”