Published July 1st, 2022 at 6:00 AM
For many parents, public pools are a saving grace during the summer season – a convenient substitute for day care. You can drop your kids off with some money for concessions and pick them up at the end of a work day.
It’s a simple way for kids to spend time outdoors and hang out with friends while staying in a safe, secure environment under the watchful eye of lifeguards. In some communities, however, parents don’t have the privilege of living near multiple public pools that they can send their kids to, leaving many families with fewer options.
The nationwide lifeguard shortage is only making the problem worse.
Despite having a population of about 153,000 people, Kansas City, Kansas, only has one public pool. After a two-year hiatus, Parkwood Pool has a one-year contract with Midwest Pool Management in order to safely open for the summer, according to the Unified Government website.
Put simply, that means KCK has outsourced their hiring process to a company to bring in enough lifeguards to open Parkwood. Having at least one pool open was a tremendous feat for this community to achieve in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this kind of problem didn’t always exist.
“There have been other pools in Wyandotte County that have closed sporadically,” said Faith Rivera, who has served on the Kansas City Kansas Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for over a year. “We had Clopperfield pool when I was growing up. I believe there was one called Washita, which is now an apartment complex … and there were other ones that older community members talk about that are no longer here.”
Rivera points out that many community members don’t know how to swim because Parkwood is the only pool in the area, and it is so overcrowded that people don’t have room to do anything except stand in the water.
“I grew up in this community. I had to learn how to swim by my mom being diligent and making sure I went to the YMCA in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and going to Johnson County pools,” she said. “Some people’s parents don’t have that option.”
In 2014, the Red Cross did a survey on national water safety that reported 84% of whites could swim, compared to 69% of African Americans. KCK’s population has a racial makeup of 53.9% white and 22.4% Black or African American, while Johnson County’s is 86.6% white and 4.9% Black or African American, according to the US Census Bureau.
These disparities between communities have existed for a long time. Advocates note that if you grow up in a community that doesn’t prioritize teaching young people how to swim, the chances of having local qualified lifeguards and swimming instructors are incredibly slim, and the problem will continue to grow.
While it seems like KCK is getting the short end of the stick, Johnson County also has been having trouble recruiting and maintaining lifeguard staff in order to keep pools operating. Although Overland Park has five outdoor public pools, only three will be opening this summer.
“We don’t have as many returning (guards) this year,” said Renee Reis, Overland Park aquatics supervisor. “We knew this was going to be a big age-out year for kids that have been with us for many years. The majority of our staff is first-year lifeguards.”
Bluejacket pool is closing because its location is not as centralized as other facilities like Young’s and Stonegate, Reis explains. Recruiting enough lifeguards to keep pools open is no easy task.
“We have our HR team — our media team — that all help in our recruitment process, but I also take on a lot of the recruitment process myself,” Reis said. “We start recruiting for the following summer in July, prior to seasons starting … We have nine, 10 months where we work on our recruiting process, reaching out through different media outlets.”
To combat the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Reis said she has been making more compromises with her lifeguard’s schedules.
“We have made our shifts shorter, we started that last year,” she said. “It (used to be), ‘Here’s your shifts, here’s what you can work.’ Now it’s, ‘Give me your schedule, and I will do my best to schedule around the other commitments that you have.’ We increased pay starting from $9.50 an hour starting to $13 an hour for the 2023 season.”
Reis believes employers are going to have to be flexible in the coming years as more demand is put on teenagers that enter the workforce.
“I do believe we are going to continue to have struggles recruiting staff,” she said. “In the future, the demands of our teenagers are going to continue, I don’t see it letting up any time soon.”
Keeping pools open is very important for families, as they offer kids an outlet during the summer that is away from technology.
“Many children, mine included, spend a lot more time than they should on electronics and devices every day and our local pool is an all day activity that gives their minds a much needed break from their screens,” said Ella Gibson, a full-time nanny in Leawood.
Gibson started taking the kids to the pool two years ago during the first summer she started nannying. Now, she takes them one to two times a week, depending on the weather.
“I think it’s important for communities to provide public pools as they’re relatively cost efficient and an exciting activity that is accessible to most families,” Gibson said. “It encourages children of all ages to get outside and to have fun over the summer while at the same time exercising and socializing with other children, which are all fundamental in growth and development.
Although pools all around the city continue to struggle due to understaffing, Rivera remains optimistic for the future of Parkwood.
“What it took for somebody to listen about the issues here was a protest,” she said. “It took a group of community members getting together to say, ‘We want our pool open, this is what we deserve for our kids.’”
Yasmine Ferhat is a summer reporting intern with Kansas City PBS. She is studying journalism and film at the University of Kansas.