Last summer I signed my daughter up for a 15 minute private swim lesson at Little Fish Swim School. After a 45 minute bike ride, I locked up our cargo bike and we headed behind the house towards the pool area. It is quite lovely, the pool is covered by a green house and there is a little bench to wait for your lesson. Fiona holds my hand as we enter the basement changing area where fish art and knick knacks are thoughtfully placed around the room.
I check the baby monitor that shows the pool area to see the lesson before ours is just getting started. Perfect timing to get her in her swim diaper, which you never want to do too early. (In case you wanted to know) After she peels off her clothes, she runs around naked as I beg her to put on the swim diaper and swimsuit.
Next comes the sunscreen, “Dots or stripes?” I ask, the toddler experts always say give them a choice. I dot on the sunscreen and rub it in. We have 9 minutes before our lesson starts when we emerge from the basement watching the clock count down until she can jump into the pool and begin her lesson.
Flash forward to May 24th of this year, I am once again watching the clock countdown. This time I am waiting to register for swim lessons on the Seattle Parks and Recreation website. You’d think in a city with so many bodies of water that signing up for swim lessons wouldn’t be this hard to secure. As the minutes tick down I am occasionally checking my email because I am technically on the clock at work, but my child requested swim lessons and I know this is my only chance to snag a coveted spot at a community center pool for the entire summer.
With my credit card in hand and ideal class time selected, I was ready to enroll the second the button popped up on my computer screen. I completed my registration in about 6 minutes and when I returned to the site you could see that all of the evening swim lessons at the Rainier Beach Pool were full. The Ballard pool evening classes filled up about fifteen minutes later. Unless you were online at noon on Tuesday you had very little chance of getting your child signed up through the Parks and Rec department until the fall, especially if you wanted to pick a location and time that works for your schedule.
I reached out to the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department about the demand for swim lessons, and Rachel Schulkin, communications manager shared with me that, “There is a lifeguard/ instructor shortage. [To address this problem] we have been doing advertising, job fairs, raising rates, and paying for training programs to recruit additional lifeguards. We are working towards returning to a registration schedule similar to pre-Covid — with the next being 7/26 for fall sports and boating and 8/16 for fall activities such as swimming.”
Even the private lessons are competitive to get into. In early May, I looked to see what spots were available at the Little Fish Swim School and there were none available until August. Back in 2020 and 2021, Seattle Parks Department there were no swim lessons due to Covid-19 and so the only option was private lessons, which were great, they were also expensive and it took a lot of restructuring of my schedule to make a 15 minute lesson work.
The private lessons cost $30 for a 15 minute lesson, while the group community center lessons cost $10 for 30 minutes. That is a big difference in price. Through the Seattle Parks and Recreation website there are scholarships available for programs like swim lessons; however, it is hard to find and you have to have already applied to the scholarship before signing up for swim lessons and it is on a completely different page of the website. I honestly would have not known about the scholarship unless my mom friend shared the information with me.
Seattle isn’t the only city in the country facing this problem, Angie Schmitt wrote an article for Slate describing the problem on a national level, “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.”
I am privileged in that I had the time and resources to sign up for swim lessons. It really shouldn’t be this way. What about parents who can’t take time in the middle of a Tuesday to sign up for swim lessons? So many families I’ve talked to end up going to a neighboring suburbs for swim lessons, where there are more options. Many of the suburban pools also have lessons where the parents aren’t in the water with kids at a younger age. This may also drive people to try to attend classes there. Speaking of driving, another issue is that for families who rely on public transit, walking, or biking it makes it harder to arrange a lesson at a pool across town or in a neighboring city.
While it can seem superfluous to make such a big deal about swim lessons, it is really about safety. We live in a city surrounded by water. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that families get swim lessons as soon as your child is ready for them.
Schmitt writes, “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).”
In Washington State an average of 17 children or teens die from drowning every year. Ensuring children know how to swim is a top recommendation to prevent this from happening.
Time is something parents do not have enough of. Between working, navigating childcare, school, summer camps, and activities, it is hard to carve out time to do the things you really want to do. It takes parents a lot of time to figure out when and how and where their child can get access to these important things like swim lessons. I have spent literal hours researching different options, looking into what it would be like to take transit or bike to nearby suburbs to do other lessons.
I carved out time in my day to sign up for swim lessons and honestly, that is something a lot of families don’t have the privilege to do. When we have a sign up system that is so competitive for spots it really highlights the latent demand for swim lessons and the need to have more class options for people at the most popular pools like Rainier Beach and Ballard.
Swim lessons are an essential safety skill. In a city like Seattle, with so much wealth, it is always surprising to me to find things that people want and care about deeply underfunded and understaffed. It is just another example of how we once again put the onus on parents to make things work instead of adequately resourcing the kinds of things parents need, like preschools and summer camps. (But I’ll save that for another article) I would love to see the city have more subsidized swim lessons, available more often to meet the very clear demand for this service. Until then parents are out of luck until the fall, so you better find some life jackets when you play at the lake during the heatwave this week.
Kelli Refer (Guest Contributor)
Kelli Refer is Move Redmond’s Executive Director. Move Redmond is a Transportation Management Association based in Redmond, Washington that advocates for safe streets, trails, and transit access. Kelli also serves on The Urbanist's Executive Board.