Jackie Robinson Park swimming pool in Harlem (146557)
Jackie Robinson Park swimming pool in Harlem Credit: Malcolm Pinckney/NYC Parks

The NYC Parks and Recreation is canceling public swimming programs this summer due to a nationwide lifeguard shortage, the city department announced over Twitter earlier this month.

Safety is our top priority,” said NYC Parks Assistant Commissioner Crystal Hudson in a statement. “It’s because of this that we prioritize access to the millions who visit our pools annually rather than redirecting resources to ancillary programming.”

With public pools opening up this week, the limited ranks of lifeguards will be largely deployed to the 51 locations across the city. But their jobs are now harder with the absence of free courses like “Learn to Swim,” which teach the basics of water safety.

This month, a pair of 13-year-old boys drowned in Jamaica Bay and two other separate drownings occurred at the Rockaways. The deaths occurred in areas restricted by NYC Parks.

The void of free swimming courses also threatens to expand inequities in water safety—Black people drown at 1.5 times the rate of white people according to the CDC. And it opens the door for private businesses to enter communities of color and charge exorbitantly for classes. The City reported last year that Imagine Swimming charged Crown Heights residents $50 for half hour courses at the former city-owned armory.

“Nobody’s immune [to drowning] but clearly there’s going to be children who are at higher risk based on race, ethnicity and the availability of swim lessons and appropriate pools with appropriate supervision,” said Dr. Terri McFadden, professor of Pediatrics at Emory University

Given drowning is the leading cause of death for toddlers ages 1-4 and one of the leading causes of death for teens, how can parents keep their kids safe this summer without access to free or affordable swimming classes? According to McFadden, there’s no way to “completely drown-proof a child” but steps can be taken to mitigate chances of drowning. Supplying Coast Guard-approved lifejackets, securing bathtubs and learning CPR are all significant layers of protection parents can apply this summer. And keeping youngsters in sight is essential.

“There needs to be somebody who’s constantly got their eyes on those children,” said McFadden. “One of those strategies is to have a designated ‘water watcher,’ somebody who puts their phone down, puts their summer novel down, puts their drink down, put whatever they’re doing down so that they can focus exclusively on keeping an eye on the children in the pool…a lifeguard cannot keep an eye on every single child in a pool, especially on a really crowded day.”

To address the statewide shortage, Gov. Kathy Hochul is bumping up New York City lifeguard hourly pay to $22, a 21% increase. At a press conference last week, Mayor Eric Adams jokingly offered another solution.

“I would love to go to the Jersey Shore and steal their lifeguards,” said Adams. “But they [also] have a shortage.”

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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1 Comment

  1. Imagine Swimming is giving $375,000 in swim lessons & other program discounts a year at the Major R. Owens Community Center, including 80% swim lessons discounts to low income families and free or low cost partnerships with local schools and non profits. Meanwhile we’ve raised pay rates and are able to continue running swim lessons, despite the myriad challenges facing both the public and private sectors. We’ve also helped get important water safety legislation passed. We’re doing a lot to prevent drowning, to get the word out about water safety, and to collaborate with the community. ‘The City’ was pushing a certain narrative and was not fair in their representation of us. Amsterdam News, please consider us as a resource for future stories.

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