Families left high and dry as B.C. cities struggle to meet demand for swimming lessons
Instructor shortage, pool closures cause backlog of kids who want to learn basic water survival skills
Of all the shortages brought on by the ripple effects of COVID-19, swimming lessons probably don't top anyone's list as the most critical.
But for B.C. parents wanting their child to learn basic water survival skills, the struggle is real. Throughout the province, getting into swimming lessons at the local community pool feels a lot like winning the lottery.
The waiting list in Prince George for swimming lessons has topped 700. In Kelowna, scoring a coveted Saturday morning swim lesson spot makes you the envy of the neighbourhood while in Kamloops, spring classes filled up quickly and unlucky families were told to wait.
Meanwhile in Vancouver, parent groups exchange strategies on how best to game the online registration system with one mom comparing getting her child with autism into lessons to "finding a unicorn in the wild."
Across B.C. the story is the same: the nine-month pool closures in 2020 and subsequent lesson reductions due to COVID-19 restrictions have created plenty of pent up demand at the pool.
"Everyone is looking to get into swimming lessons at the same time and that's definitely creating a backlog and shortage," said B.C. Lifesaving Society executive director Dale Miller.
"We understand the need and the importance parents see in getting their kids in swim lessons and we fully agree — it's part of safety around the water, learning to swim."
Lifeguard, swim instructor shortage
Aquatic programmers also trace the problem to a worker shortage in the field. Pandemic pool shutdowns not only brought swimming lessons to a standstill, it halted training courses for those who aspire to teach them.
In Kamloops, even if the city could offer more lessons, hiring instructors is almost impossible.
"There are staff shortages in the lifeguard industry," said Andrew Smeaton, Kamloops aquatics program supervisor. "In the past, we might have said, 'Hey, we'll just pull in extra lifeguards.' But now we're at a point where we don't have those extra lifeguards."
In response, Kamloops has lowered the age limit for swim instructors from 17 to 16 and dropped a couple of courses that used to be mandatory for staff.
Eligible candidates now need five certifications: Bronze Medallion, Bronze Cross, National Lifeguard, Standard First Aid and Water Safety Instructor. At a combined cost of around $1,400, getting qualified to teach swimming isn't cheap, easy or quick.
"We're doing everything we can to train more lifeguards... and to get more people into the lifeguarding industry to hopefully help refill our ranks and be able to offer more programs again," said Smeaton.
In Kelowna, the lifeguard-instructor shortage was made worse when the University of British Columbia Okanagan moved to online learning, sending a number of out-of-town students who also teach at the city pool back to their hometowns.
Kelowna aquatics and fitness coordinator Tyler Stringer said the city used to post lifeguard-instructor jobs once every 18 months to two years, but now have to do it three or four times a year.
"The [job] we currently have up right now, we only received two applications initially and it stayed open for four weeks," said Stringer. "Back before COVID, we would get anywhere from 16 to 24 applications."
Population boom, old pools
In Prince George, where a population boom is also driving demand, the swimming lesson bottleneck was made worse when city council elected not to reopen the aging Four Seasons Leisure Pool, one of the two city pools shutdown in the 2020 COVID-19 closures.
A new downtown pool under construction is slated for completion later this year. City spokesman Mike Kellet said the hope is the yet unnamed facility will go a long way to reversing the ever-growing swimming lesson waiting list.
"The Four Seasons was really the workhorse and was very much an instructional institution," said Kellet. "It's being replaced and upgraded, with respect to the new pool."
The problem with aging pools was brought into sharp focus last week when a section of the 48-year-old Vancouver Aquatic Centre's exterior wall came crashing to the ground near the front doors.
Luckily, no one was injured, but Miller says it's another sign cities need to prioritize aquatics in their planning.
"When communities go to their citizens and ask what recreation facilities they'd like to see, a pool is typically at the top of the list," he said.
"And we look at the recent problems at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre, an aging facility, we know there is definitely a need for an upgrade, or many new pools to provide the important recreation that the public wants."
With files from The Early Edition