Swim Lessons Save Lives. Should Schools Provide Them?

By Elizabeth Heubeck — May 04, 2023 5 min read
Close up of African American person's legs in the pool.
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As summer draws near, kids are increasingly likely to find themselves in or near the water. To some, this is a much anticipated opportunity for recreation and physical activity. But for those who can’t swim, being around water poses a serious threat of drowning.

One state lawmaker wants to change this, and she’s eyeing the school curriculum as the vehicle for action.

Maryland Del. Karen Toles (D-District 25) this April introduced HB 1105, which would have required the state education department to develop a curriculum for an elective course in water safety and swimming for public school students in grades 8 through 12.

“It’s something that’s needed. I don’t know how to swim myself,” said Toles. “You look at many children throughout Maryland, particularly in the Black community, and historically, it’s not something parents passed down to their children. It’s a skill our children need to have.”

The bipartisan bill died in committee in this year’s legislative session; Tole suggested that its late introduction was partly to blame. (It was introduced on February 10.) But the effort wasn’t a complete flop. It raised awareness among the public and policy makers of the importance of learning to swim for safety’s sake, an issue that’s particularly pressing for students of color, who are far less likely to know how to swim and who drown at a much higher rate than their white peers.

The bill follows legislative efforts in other states to incorporate swimming into the school curriculum. In 2014, then-Rep. Karen Clark introduced a bill in Minnesota that would require public schools to provide swim lessons for K-12 students. The bill did not become law and swimming is not a graduation requirement in Minnesota, according to Kevin Burns, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education. While a few individual schools and districts nationwide do require students to learn how to swim, there are still no statewide laws requiring schools to provide swimming lessons as part of their curriculum. Nevertheless, Toles said the recently proposed bill in Maryland has galvanized support from sources that could serve as future partners in such an initiative.

Staunch support for the initiative

One such supporter is Maryland’s Prince George’s County’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

“We’re really excited that Delegate Toles is advocating for this vital education and skill building opportunity for students in the state,” said Tara Eggleston Stewart, the division chief for aquatics and athletic facilities for the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. “We in PG County serve a predominantly African American and Latino resident population. Those communities are at most risk for drowning and water-related injuries,” she said.

The Prince George’s parks and recreation department has, since 2011, partnered with its local school system to address this problem. It began with a $5,000 grant from the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash program, a national initiative to bring water safety and education to underserved populations.

Initially, the department worked with a few schools close to its aquatic facilities to offer water safety education as well as swimming instruction at its facilities free of charge during the school day. The county school system provides bus transportation to and from the pools for participating 2nd graders. The parks and recreation department funds swim instructors and, for any student who needs them, goggles and swimsuits. The growing program currently serves 25 local schools and 1,450 students, and Eggleston Stewart hopes to expand it to 45 schools by the 2023–2024 school year.

“We teach important education skills in the school system around math, science, English, and so forth. Learning to swim is really a life-saving skill,” said Eggleston Stewart.

Challenges to launching swim requirements

Partnerships like the one between Prince George’s County’s schools and its park and recreation department illustrate how a bill like the one Toles proposed can be executed. It also shows how many pieces need to align to make it happen. Such efforts require staunch advocates like Eggleston Stewart and ample resources—PG County’s agency operates 14 facilities with pools. Some counties have far fewer. Participating school systems must also be willing and able to support the initiative. Like many school systems around the country, Maryland has a shortage of school bus drivers; it’s unclear how many other local school systems would be able to provide transportation to and from pools.

These complicated arrangements could be avoided if schools had pools. But, as noted by Cara Grant, the president-elect of SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators, that’s generally not the case—a factor that likely contributed to the bill’s failure, which Tole said had bi-partisan support. “Very few schools in the state of Maryland have swimming pools in their school facility,” Grant said. “Those that do usually have a partnership with government agencies to fund them.”

One such model, Grant explained, might be the District of Columbia’s transportation department, which has partnered with D.C. public schools to create Biking for Kids—classes on pedestrian and bicycle safety held in the district’s elementary schools.

Inequitable access to swimming is at the root of the problem

While the logistical challenges of launching and maintaining swimming programs by school systems are real, so too is the danger for kids who don’t learn to swim.

Drowning is the second leading cause of injury death for children ages 5 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and not knowing how to swim is one of the biggest risk factors for drowning. Nearly 64 percent of Black children in the United States report no to low swimming ability, compared to 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of white children, according to the advocacy organization U.S.A. Swimming.

A lack of opportunity to learn how to swim is largely to blame for the disparity, fueled historically by segregated pools and fewer pools in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are Black. Plus, many cities are now experiencing lifeguard shortages. Subsequently, Black children ages 10-14 drown in swimming pools at rates 7.6 times higher than White children, according to the CDC.

These statistics, and the support her proposed legislation has received so far, keep Toles optimistic.

“Folks are jumping on board to support my bill to provide this life saving skill,” she said. “I plan to bring it [the bill] back next year, and get even more advocates at the table.”


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