BOISE — May is National Water Safety month and marks the start of warmer weather in Southwest Idaho. Warmer days also mean more people seeking to cool off in the area's waterways.
But a lack of access to swim lessons during the pandemic has meant that many children haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to swim, and locally, experts are encouraging parents to seek out available programs and get educated on water safety to prevent accidental drownings.
There are several locations across the Treasure Valley where both children and adults can access swim lessons, though not all cities will be offering the service this year.
The city of Boise opted not to run its swim lessons program in 2020 and made a "difficult" decision to keep the program closed for another year due to concerns over close face-to-face contact between instructors and classes, said Doug Holloway, director of Boise Parks and Recreation.
“Part of our concern is that when you’re in the pool, we can’t require masks. We don’t feel comfortable with that close contact and still don’t know what that’s going to look like,” Holloway said.
Because children ages 11 and younger can't get vaccinated yet, the city ultimately decided it had to cancel the program one more year.
“I do have a comfort level in looking at who is offering swim lessons,” he said, adding that private organizations and nonprofits such as the YMCA will be offering classes at their facilities to both children and adults.
The Caldwell Municipal Pool will be closed for the summer of 2021 due to an electrical problem and the city won't be able to offer swim lessons this year, the Caldwell Recreation Department confirmed.
Treasure Valley Family YMCA is a nonprofit. It offers financial assistance to those seeking to access classes and will not turn anyone away who can’t afford lessons. Treasure Valley residents do not have to be YMCA members to access those lessons, said Mike Kapuscinski, executive director at the South Meridian YMCA.
Nampa Parks and Recreation confirmed that swim lessons would be offered this summer, and in Boise, the newly opened Goldfish Swim School is moving full speed ahead with its swim lessons program for children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists drowning as the leading cause of death among children aged 0-19 and recommends swim lessons as well as the use of life jackets in bodies of water.
In 2020, Idaho had the second-highest rate of accidental drownings for children ages 1 to 5 in the nation. Previous reporting by the Idaho Press suggested that a prevalence of irrigation canals contributes to that number, and according to the Idaho Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk, three infants died in a canal from 2011 to 2014. During that time, 20 children aged 1 to 9 died in drowning incidents in Idaho. An abundance of rivers and lakes also contribute, Kapuscinski said.
“We don’t have enough swimming education in the state,” he said. “You combine that with all of the lakes, rivers, canals, and private swimming pools, there’s a lot of waterfront unguarded."
At Goldfish, the branch is participating in a nationwide campaign in observation of National Water Safety Month in which families are encouraged to take a “Safer Swimmer Pledge” to promote the importance of parent-child conversations around water safety. Those who take the pledge will have the opportunity to win one free year of swim lessons, and the organization is donating $1 to the USA Swimming Foundation for every pledge made.
Emily Wyckoff, who alongside her husband, Andrew, owns the Goldfish branch in Boise, said the No. 1 safety tip for kids is to always have an adult with them if they’re in or around water. She encourages swimmers to follow posted rules, listen to lifeguards, and jump in the water feet first every single time. Wearing a life jacket is important if you’re not a strong swimmer or are in open water, and those life jackets should fit properly, she said.
Kapuscinski recommends making sure there’s a lifeguard on duty and to not swim in an unguarded venue. Parents should have their eyes on their kids at all times, and in an open water environment, life jackets are recommended. “Anyone going to swim anywhere should make sure that you understand the underwater topography of that pool or body of water,” he said.
Quinn’s Pond in Boise is a prime example of a man-made body of water that has a beach with shallow water, but a sharp drop-off, he added, something that adds risk for a weak swimmer.
“Somebody that doesn’t know how to swim might be comfortable because they’re touching the bottom, then all of a sudden they bounce to the side and go under,” Kapuscinski said.
Experts recommend layers of safety. Making sure you have other people around when you’re swimming, understanding your abilities, and taking breaks, as well as delegating responsibilities including taking turns watching kids when families swim in groups, can save lives.
There are also warning signs to watch for.
“Exhausted swimmers will have glassy eyes, they won’t be able to remove long hair from their eyes because they’re trying to keep themselves afloat,” Kapuscinski said.
Weak swimmers will desperately cling to edges of things they can hold onto and will inevitably be looking toward safety — either the shore or a lifeguard.
“The sad part of it is that drowning is nothing like what it is in Hollywood movies. It’s very silent," Kapuscinski said. “People can slip under the surface in as little as 10 to 30 seconds. Once there is water present in our faces and mouths, we can no longer yell for help.”
Life jackets should also be Coast Guard-approved at a minimum, and the safest life jacket — one that will turn someone over onto their back — is a Type II Coast Guard-approved life jacket, Kapuscinski said.
“Those, however, are still not perfect,” he said. “They’re only 90% effective at flipping an individual over. Swimming lessons will help somebody in a life jacket orient themselves in water and get to safety.”
Kourtni Ball, a program specialist at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital’s Injury Prevention Program, warned parents and swimmers that in Idaho’s cold lakes and rivers, even the best of swimmers can have slowed motor functions and find it difficult to move around in the water.
Even if you’re not planning on getting in the water, children and adults who can’t swim should wear life jackets, she said. “We’ve had so many kids who have accidentally slipped, fallen in, and their parents can’t get to them in time or their parents don’t see them fall into those bodies of water,” Ball said.
She encouraged parents to learn CPR, even if the classes aren’t available, by reading and watching videos online.
Her primary advice is for parents to pay attention. According to the CDC, children ages 1 to 4 drown primarily in home swimming pools. “Pool time or any time we’re anywhere near a body of water is not the time to read a book or get into lengthy conversations with people we’re with,” she said. “We want to make sure we’ve got our eyes on our kids, not on our phones.”