Swimming swiftly through the shallow end of the pool at Village East Swim Club in Manhattan, Jacob De La Rosa, 10, surfaced behind his instructor and latched onto the pool noodles at his waist, swinging himself around and laughing.
The scene would have been impossible just a year ago. Jacob, who has autism, was terrified of getting into the water, said his mother, Lee Hodge, 36. But that changed last summer when he was selected to participate in a free beginner swim class through Plus Pool, a nonprofit group.
“Within the first week of joining the program, he was, like, completely a fish,” she said.
Ms. Hodge said that as a single parent, paying for swimming lessons — which can cost as much as $50 for a group class and over $100 for private sessions — would have been out of the question, a situation for many families in New York City.
But as the summer kicks off, swim lessons — free or otherwise — have become scarce as the effects of a national lifeguard shortage in the city and across the country. Pools have had to close or reduce their hours because they don’t have enough lifeguards, who also often serve as instructors.
On Tuesday, New York City public pools opened for the season, but the city has had to cancel its free swim lesson program. Meanwhile private programs have long wait lists, some in the hundreds, for increasingly expensive classes.
Before the pandemic, the city was making strides at increasing accessibility to swim classes for lower-income communities and bridging historically rooted racial inequities. Now, experts and swim program leaders are concerned that the lack of access to water-safety instruction and affordable swimming lessons means many children and parents will not learn potentially life-saving skills.
More children, ages 1 to 4, die from drowning than any other cause of death, except birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The swim lesson shortage could also negatively impact progress in improving swimming ability in youth. While more young people are learning to swim, racial gaps have persisted, according to a 2017 study by the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation: More than two-thirds of Black children have low or no swimming ability, the study found.
“I feel sick to my stomach about it,” said Carol Irwin, a researcher at the University of Memphis and lead author of the U.S.A. Swimming study, about New York City’s moratorium on lessons. “Some of those kids are going to drown.”
The decision by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation to cancel its free “Learn to Swim” program, which served 20,506 children and 670 adults in 2019, is perhaps the biggest blow to swimming education in New York this season.
Janiyah Walton, 8, who lives in Manhattan with her mother, Shika Barton, 39, started learning how to swim before the pandemic through the city’s free swim lessons. Ms. Barton was hoping to again submit Janiyah’s name into the lottery for classes this summer, but an email from the city announcing the beginning of enrollment never came.
“It’s sad because she’s going to be behind and I really want her to learn how to swim,” Ms. Barton said, adding, “Who’s paying like, $700 to $800 for swim lessons — for like, five lessons?”
Crystal Howard, assistant commissioner of the parks department, said that with a smaller lifeguards corps, it became impossible to offer the free classes, which require lifeguards on duty.
“Safety is our top priority,” Ms. Howard said. “It’s because of this that we prioritize access to the millions who visit our pools annually rather than redirecting resources to ancillary programming.”
The state also offered free and fee-based swim lessons at about a dozen state parks in past years, including at locations in New York City. Now, lessons will be offered only at Riverbank State Park in Manhattan, which serves about 300 children annually, unless the state can hire more lifeguards this summer.
The scarcity of lessons throughout the city has caused a crush of interest for a relatively small number of slots.
When Plus Pools opened sign-ups for free classes last week, there were more than 1,000 interested families for 150 slots, said Kara Meyer, managing director of Plus Pools.
Interest at SwimJim Swimming Lessons, a private, fee-based program with locations in Upper Manhattan, Brooklyn and Texas, has gone up by 25 percent, said Jim Spiers, its chief executive and president.
The growth would be great, he said, if the constant turnover of instructors and lifeguards did not leave the company struggling to staff classes.
Imagine Swimming, another private, fee-based program, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, cut class times by 10 minutes in order to offset an increase in operating costs, including rents for pool facilities.
“If you can’t get more pools and you can’t get more staff to meet the demand, the only way we could accommodate that demand is to reduce the duration of classes,” said Brendan O’Melveny, Imagine Swimming’s chief aquatic officer.
Officials and swim program directors agree about the one major hurdle to hiring more lifeguards: pay.
The city aims to hire between 1,400 and 1,500 lifeguards per year, but was only able to secure slightly more than 1,000 lifeguards in 2021. This year, it hired about 500.
Re-certification of former lifeguards is ongoing until July 4, but many found other jobs earlier in the pandemic, when pools were shut down for months, and the re-certification process is lengthy, officials said.
Some municipalities and private programs increased wages or offered new benefits to attract recruits, but the city has not. The starting pay for lifeguards has been $16 an hour since 2019.
Henry Garrido, executive director for District Council 37, the union that negotiates for the city’s lifeguards, said that his union had interviewed former lifeguards who decided not to apply this year, and “80 percent of the problem was wages.”
Negotiations between the city and union to increase starting wages for lifeguards to $20 this season fell through. A spokesman for the city said the administration had no comment about the discussions with the union.
Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced an immediate increase of up to 34 percent in the starting pay for state lifeguards. The Y.M.C.A., which starts lifeguards at $18 an hour, is now offering its in-house certification courses, which can cost up to $450 elsewhere, for free to anyone who applies and meets screening requirements.
Other private organizations are raising salaries, covering the cost of certifications and leaning on networks of qualified volunteers to stay competitive.
Another problem, according to Mr. Spiers, of SwimJim: “People just don’t see it as glamorous as it used to look. It’s not like Baywatch anymore.”
For his smaller organization, a hurdle has been finding pool facilities.
In the city, some public high school campuses have pools, but in last two decades, many have fallen into disuse.
The school system’s 27 operational pools host swimming and water safety trainings for students, a Department of Education spokeswoman said. Close to 40 public school students have been certified as lifeguards this year, but the department does not track how many students take swimming lessons through in-school programs.
Paulana Lamonier, founder of Black People Will Swim, a nonprofit program based in Long Island, said that the college pool facilities she was hoping to rent this summer were mostly closed for renovations. Instead, she will contract with private homes to teach her classes.
Before the pandemic, Imagine Swimming had two of its own facilities and about 14 satellite facilities it rented from colleges, high schools, residential buildings and hotels.
This year, Mr. O’Melveny said, the group has been able to rent a third of the satellite facilities, at an increased rate of about 30 percent.
“Just to know that so many New York City kids probably won’t have the opportunity to take swimming lessons this summer, because of the lifeguard shortage, is frightening,” Mr. O’Melveny said.