NYC council bills would make it easier to open public school pools year-round

A swimming pool lane marked by blue, red, white dividers.
City Council is looking for ways to expand access to public school pools, fund more swim programs, and build the lifeguard pipeline. (Belinda Howell / Getty Images)

This story was originally published on March 6 by THE CITY.

The City Council is diving in to address the city’s lifeguard shortage with a bill that would provide funding to keep public school pools open year-round and fund more swim programs in its next budget, according to Speaker Adrienne Adams’ office.

The proposal — which also includes working with the Parks Department to find locations to build new pools and offer swimming lessons — is designed to create a stronger pipeline to staff up at the more than 100 indoor and outdoor pools and 14 miles of beaches in New York City, and help young people learn how to swim.

A lifeguard shortage last summer forced some rolling closures of pools and beaches and put lap swimming and popular learn to swim programs on hold. 

The bill, along with a commitment to allocate more money for swimming programs, will officially be announced at Adams’ State of the City address planned for March 8 in the Bronx.

“Year-round access to public pools is critical to New Yorkers’ health and safety,” she told THE CITY in a statement. 

“When one out of three Black and Asian students, and one out of four Hispanic students can’t swim, we’ve got to consider free swimming programming and the maintenance of public pools as a matter of justice.” The data is a Health Department survey in 2017.

It’s unclear how much money the Council wants to allocate specifically for the city’s pool programs, or how much all of these proposals could cost. It’s also unclear how much money would be needed to open new pools across the city, with a focus on building in environmental justice communities, according to the speaker’s office. 

The plan to take on major capital projects comes as Mayor Eric Adams and other city and state financial watchdogs warn of worsening economic conditions in New York City. 

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli warned last month that there are “significant risks” ahead for the city’s finances. And the mayor released his $102.7 billion preliminary budget in January, with a focus on “fiscal discipline” – with cuts to city agencies and more belt tightening. The council and mayor have to agree to a final budget by June 30.

Most of the city’s large outdoor Parks Department-run pools were built as Works Progress Administration projects in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, 16 Council districts don’t have any Parks Department pools, according to the City Council’s analysis – although some of those districts have miles of beaches. 

In 2018, the Parks Department launched its “Cool Pools” program, which renovated 16 outdoor pools that hadn’t been fixed up since the 1970s. But many agency-run pools are currently in some stages of renovation.

On Thursday, the department announced that the Olympic-sized outdoor Astoria Pool would be closed this summer for repair. And on Monday, the Flushing Aquatic Center pool reopened after three years – but will close again in 2025 for more repairs. 

Among Parks pools that continue to be closed for repairs are those at the Hansborough Recreation Center in Harlem, St. Mary’s Recreation Center in The Bronx and Brownsville in Brooklyn, which are indoor pools. 

The Edenwald pool in The Bronx, Lasker, Tony Dapolito and Tompkins Square in Manhattan — all outdoor pools — are also closed. 

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said the agency looks “forward to reviewing the legislation when presented.”

“Parks is proud that in spite of the national lifeguard shortage, we were able to open all of our pools and beaches last summer to be available for the New Yorkers who rely on them,” the spokesperson, Meghan Lalor, told THE CITY. “We are actively and aggressively recruiting to build our staff levels back to where they were pre-pandemic, and open to exploring all avenues to do so.”

A Department of Education spokesperson did not comment about proposals to keep school pools open for longer, but noted that there are 33 operating pools inside New York City public school buildings, with another 15 pools currently under renovation.

These pools can already be used outside of school hours — including during the summer — if another program has an extended-use permit, according to a Department of Education official. The cost of these permits vary, and cover paying for supervision and operation at both the pool and building. 

More qualify for lifeguard training

After a shortage of guards threw cold water on last summer’s season, the Parks Department made changes to process of becoming a lifeguard this year ahead of the summer season.

They tweaked the qualifying exam for “lifeguards school,” letting applicants pass by swimming the 50 yard test in 45 seconds or less — which is 10 more seconds than before. The agency also began offering the qualifying tests earlier, and skills training for people who got close to the qualifying score. 

So far, 319 swimmers have passed the qualifying exam this year, which is up from 240 total last year. Two more qualifying swim rounds will take place this weekend, a Parks Department spokesperson said, and then swimmers will take a 16-week nighttime training class.

To be eligible, a prospective lifeguard must pass a few more tests, including successfully swimming 440 yards in at least six minutes and 40 seconds to be assigned to a beach, or at least seven minutes and 40 seconds to get assigned to a pool. 

The Parks Department said it worked to make the whole process more transparent for applicants and swimmers. For the first time, those who took their tests were told the time on their swim. The department has also been more open about listing year-round lifeguard positions.

Longtime lifeguards who have criticized the process of joining the ranks say it’s a shift towards taking some control of who becomes a lifeguard from the administrators of one of the lifeguard unions, NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of District Council 37.

A spokesperson for DC37 declined to comment.

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