About 70,000 kids in second grade in public schools will be entitled to free swimming lessons and water safety instructions after a bill that was pushed by Councilwoman Julie Menin was passed on Sept. 14 by the City Council.
The bill becomes law 120 days after its passage.
Menin said the law is designed to cut the number of drowning deaths and give kids a sense of comfort around water. There have been 58 drownings in New York since 2008, Menin pointed out in an interview with Straus News. “That is completely unacceptable and preventable. We have a situation where 27 percent of children do not know how to swim. There’s a real equity issue here.”
Within the city, there are 53 public swimming pools and 15 miles of city beaches. But 18 of the 51 council districts do not have access to a public pool. This past summer, Hamilton Fish Pool on the Lower East Side was the only city pool in Manhattan that offered youth swimming lessons. Swimming lessons for youngsters were once standard at virtually all public swimming pools in the summertime but that was upended by COVID and the ensuing lifeguard shortages at city pools in recent years.
The Center for Disease and Control (CDC) also shows that people of color are more likely to drown than their white counterparts.
“We need the Parks Department to think outside the box in terms of access to pools.” Menin proposes that university, public, and YMCA pools be used to provide the swimming lessons, since outdoor public pools close around Labor Day.
“With summers getting hotter and hotter because of global warming, we want to ensure that all children have access to a public pool and beaches. No parent wants a situation where if their child does come into contact with a beach or pool and they don’t know how to swim then you have to worry about their child’s safety.”
Menin is specifically targeting eight and nine years because according to water and safety experts, at that age children are old enough to understand the water safety components and retain that knowledge.
According to the Department of Health, children ages one to four die from drowning more than any other cause and it is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for five to fourteen year old children. Only second graders will be receiving water safety lessons under the new bill but drownings occur at all ages. In 2019, a 15 year old died from drowning near Beach 88th St. in Rockaway Beach in Queens. And just this summer in the Rockaways both a 14 and 19 year old drowned. All drownings occurred after lifeguards had gone off duty at 6 p.m.
To this Menin said, “There are certainly other programs with the Parks department programming, but I wanted a universal program where every child gets that opportunity through second grade.”
New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation offers free swimming lessons to kids of all ages including adults and elders, if you have a membership. Without a membership, applicants are drawn at random from using a lottery system. Those that are not chosen get added to a waitlist.
With more than 7,300 public pools and 120 YMCA locations across the state of New York, there will be a higher demand for instructors and lifeguards, potentially creating a delay. The New York State Sanitary code also requires a Level III staff to be provided for each required lifeguard engaged in instructional activities. Just this past summer Parks Commissioner Susan Donoghue told City Council members that, “We are in the throes of a national lifeguard shortage.”
State employed lifeguards are getting paid a starting salary of $22 an hour while city lifeguards are getting paid a starting salary of $19.47/hour, after Mayor Eric Adams reached an agreement for a 22 percent salary hike in July, 2022. But it came too late in the season to solve that summer’s lifeguard shortages, and the shortages persisted again in the 2023 season.
At the hearing that took place on September 14th, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said, “Swimming lessons don’t just teach us to swim–they help people stay safe in the water, ensure people understand when it’s safe to enter the water in the first place, and provide us with recreation, relief from the heat, and joy together with our neighbors.”
Menin told Straus News that she spoke to parks department officials about using other indoor facilities such as neighborhood Y’s and university pools across the city. “They indicated at the hearing that they have been ramping up on efforts to add more lifeguards,” she added.