Como Regional Park Pool offers free swim lessons focused on water safety. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

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A 5-year-old in a watermelon-themed swimsuit makes it across the wading area at St. Paul’s Como Park Regional Pool on her second day of swim lessons, holding onto her instructor in knee-deep water.

“Look how far you swam!” exclaims her teacher.

The lessons are a major victory, said the little girl’s dad, Josh Marcus, who signed his two daughters up for the free lessons after he learned about them from a friend.

“I can swim, so I’m normally the teacher, but with how afraid my 5-year-old is of the water, I wanted to leave it to the pros,” said Marcus as he watched the lesson from the pool deck. “As long as I’m seeing they’re safe out there.”

In response to recent high-profile drownings and growing awareness of racial disparities in drowning statistics, Minneapolis and St. Paul have ramped up youth water safety education through free swimming lessons this summer.

Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children under age 5 in the United States. And national statistics reveal racial disparities in who’s most at risk: Black youth ages 10 to 14 are 3.6 times more likely to drown than their white peers, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show. Younger Black children ages 5 to 9 are 2.6 times as likely to drown as their white counterparts. And overall, Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to drown than white peers, based on data from 1999 to 2019.

Local data echo that: Hennepin Healthcare says 12 of 24 drownings that HCMC has overseen over the last four years were people of color, seven were white, and the racial makeup of five was unknown. 

(The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources can’t break down its data by race because the required U.S. Coast Guard incident reports don’t have an option for race or ethnicity, according to Lisa Dugan, boat and water safety outreach coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The DNR recorded 53 non-boating drownings for 2021; data for 2022 aren’t yet fully compiled.) 

On top of that, this year’s nationwide lifeguard shortages have heightened disparities in access to safe swimming areas.

While it’s too soon to know how this summer will compare to others, the grim disparities are unlikely to change substantially, water safety advocates say. There’s no quick fix. 

But three main strategies can help keep children safe in the water: education, life jacket use, and access to lifeguarded places to swim. 

“This is not a one-time thing,” said David Albornoz, aquatics facilities supervisor for the city of St. Paul, who has long dreamed of offering the free, safety-focused swimming lessons that began last week at the Como Regional Pool. “One great week will do nothing. We want a great three years.”

Lessons, lifeguards, and life jackets

The free lessons, offered to 300 children for three consecutive years through St. Paul Parks and Recreation and funded with $94,910 from a Met Council equity grant, target “residents at highest risk of drowning,” according to the grant proposal.

The lessons emphasize safety over swimming stroke development, Albornoz said. 

A few very specific safety concepts can make a significant impact in preventing drowning in a way that simply teaching swimming may not, he said. For instance: Wear a life jacket. Don’t go into a body of water you’re not familiar with. Don’t play around drains in pools.

For parents? Keep a close, steady eye on kids when they’re in the water. A child can drown in the time it takes to watch two TikTok videos, said Alison Petri, program manager with Abbey’s Hope Foundation, an Edina nonprofit named after Abbey Taylor, a 6-year-old girl killed in a pool-drain accident in 2008. 

“Do you know the most dangerous area here?” Albornoz asked, indicating the Como complex, which includes a lazy river, a kiddie pool with fountains and a slide, a pool with a zip line and rock-climbing wall, and a traditional lap-lane or free swim pool.

“It’s right here,” he said, pointing at the deepest area of the kiddie pool. “Toddlers tip over and they can’t get back up, and parents aren’t paying attention.”

He assigns four to seven lifeguards to that pool.

Swim teachers reiterate those crucial safety lessons in each class, Albornoz said, and also correct subtler unsafe behaviors. When, for example, one boy let go of the wall in the deep end, a teacher quickly corrected him, gently reminding him to keep a hand on the wall. 

David Albornoz is the aquatics facilities supervisor for the City of Saint Paul and a well-known figure at the Como Pool.

Once kids know how to swim, it’s easy for them to gain a false sense of security, he said. Good swimmers often think they don’t need life jackets, and swim in places they shouldn’t.

“Don’t go into the f-ing Mississippi because you know how to swim,” he said.

Overconfidence can also tempt people into unsafe rescue situations that end up exacerbating the emergency, Albornoz said. During lessons, he’ll ask students: What do you do if your sibling is struggling in the water? Answer: Throw something like a rope to them and call for help, and do NOT go after them. 

“People have an insane strength and power of will to survive” when they start drowning, Albornoz said, which often starts a chain reaction that puts a potential rescuer’s life in danger as well.

“People [who are drowning] have an insane strength and power of will to survive” that can make them dangerous to would-rescuers.

David Albornoz, St. Paul aquatics facilities supervisor

A Colorado survey of survivors of near-drowning experiences found that 85 percent said they could swim, Petri said.

“And often, they’re good swimmers,” she said. “That’s why we’re pushing for life jackets on open water. On lakes and rivers, currents and conditions are continually changing. In Minnesota, people tend to think they’re good swimmers so they don’t need life jackets. But then they go to Galveston and get caught in a rip current or under a pier.

“We think we become drown-proof when we’re good swimmers,” Petri said. “No one is drown-proof.”

We think we become drown-proof when we’re good swimmers. No one is drown-proof.

Alison Petri of Abbey’s Hope Foundation

A 2019 Australian study of river drownings asked 30 experts to narrow down the most effective safety strategies. They agreed that education on river-specific risks, the dangers of alcohol, and swimming survival skills is key, as are lifejackets and physical barriers in dangerous areas. And an earlier study on swim lessons for Black youth in Florida showed drowning disparities can be eliminated. 

Local efforts focus on lessons, lifeguards, and life jackets. 

In addition to the St. Paul lessons, free swimming and swim lessons at North Commons Waterpark began this year with new funding earmarked for equitable youth programming from Minneapolis Parks and Recreation. Both the swimming lesson program and the North Commons Swim Camp are full, said Sarah Chillo, aquatics manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. A citywide swimming lesson scholarship program allows qualified residents to take lessons at other sites for $5. 

The YMCA of the North offers some free lessons as well. 

Abbey’s Hope, is giving away 2,022 life jackets this summer. The organization recommends that everyone wear them while in a boat, and that people who aren’t strong swimmers wear them in any open-water setting. 

“In Minnesota, you legally only need to wear them until age 10,” Petri said. “But I don’t recall kids magically getting buoyant when they turn 10.”

In Minnesota, you legally only need to wear [life jackets] until age 10. But I don’t recall kids magically getting buoyant when they turn 10.

Alison Petri of Abbey’s Hope Foundation

Most beach drownings occur when no lifeguards are present, according to the CDC. And with fewer lifeguards at beaches this year nationwide, there are fewer free safe places to swim. 

“Despite the [Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s] significant lifeguard wage increase, recruitment, scholarship opportunities to become a lifeguard, and a certification reimbursement program, lifeguards continue to be hard to find,” Chillo wrote in an email to Sahan Journal. “We were able to hire approximately 70 percent of our desired workforce and had to make adjustments to ensure our operational footprint reflects a safe staffing capacity.”

The YMCA of the North used similar recruitment strategies to find lifeguards, but could have used more, said Shannon Kinstler, senior director of aquatics for YMCA of the North. A reservation system helps manage the number of swimmers, she added. 

Other initiatives

After several river drownings in recent years, victims’ families raised the question of signage to mark hazardous sites. In August 2020, Isaac Childress III, 6, drowned at a boat landing on Boom Island. The island, like all river areas in Minneapolis, is not marked as a no-swimming area. Instead of indicating where not to swim, Minneapolis Parks and Rec has long followed a policy of indicating where to swim (although beaches are marked with signs when closed). 

But in St. Paul, several areas of the river are marked with no-swimming signs in St. Paul. Several no-swimming signs, in multiple languages, are posted at Hidden Falls Regional Park, for example, a known hazardous swimming area.

Minneapolis is reconsidering that policy.  “Beach sites without lifeguards are signed accordingly—No Lifeguard on Duty,’” Chillo said. 

The park board’s director of communications, Dawn Sommers, “is heading up an internal team being formed to address signage along water access points” across the Minneapolis parks system, Chillo said.

With research scant, it’s unclear whether warning signs help prevent drowning. One survey of Australian beach-goers showed that only 45 percent of those questioned noticed signs at all. There is no significant research on signage in river areas.

With inconsistent signage and no current statewide education efforts, Abbey’s Hope started circulating a list of lifeguarded areas to swim this summer.

Back at the Como Pool, the teacher of the reluctant 5-year-old checks in near the end of the lesson.

“How did that feel?”

The little girl smiles and flashes a thumbs up. And her dad grins.

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...