Ontario parents frustrated with lack of swimming lessons amid lifeguard shortage

Lacey Miller is frustrated after her daughter's fall swimming lessons were abruptly cancelled this week due to a lifeguard shortage.

The Ottawa mother said her five-year-old's swim classes were set to start soon, after she secured a spot in a program last month, but a call from a city staffer on Monday informed her the lessons were scrapped over a lack of qualified lifeguards.

"My child was looking forward to it. We were looking forward to it. ... it is frustrating," she said in an interview on Tuesday. "We just think it's a life skill. So, it's really important for kids to learn how to swim."

Several Ontario cities say they're dealing with a shortage of lifeguards, which is leading to class cancellations as well as reduced public swim times – and frustrations among affected parents like Miller.

Cities say the pandemic has contributed to the shortage, since lifeguard training programs were paused for periods of time after COVID-19 hit. In Toronto, a labour shortage led the city to announce a five per cent cut in its fall recreation programs on Tuesday, affecting swimming and other classes.

Dan Chenier, manager of recreation, cultural and facility services at the City of Ottawa, said the shortage there is affecting most city pools and has led to the cancellation of some learn-to-swim classes and public swim times.

"We understand that swim programs play an important role in our communities by keeping residents active, healthy and socially connected, while also teaching critical water safety skills," he wrote in a statement.

"The city has implemented several measures to maintain as many services as possible and is committed to bolstering training and recruitment efforts."

Chenier said qualified supervisory staff have been filling in as lifeguards to help deal with the situation. The city is also working to train more lifeguards, he said.

"We have been operating lifesaving, lifeguarding and leadership courses at near full capacity to support the viability of our workforce," he said.

Miller said there were no remaining city-run swim programs with spots available for her daughter this season. She and her husband plan to take their five-year-old to a pool on the weekends to teach her the basics of swimming themselves.

"I had already looked into private lessons and it's extremely expensive," Miller said.

"When registration opens again for the next session, which would probably be spring, we'll try it again. But there really aren't any options because everything else is just waitlisted. So, we're kind of out of luck."

Miller added that she has a two-year-old daughter who remains registered in a city-run swim class that so far is still running.

Other communities are dealing with the effects of a lifeguard shortage as well.

In Toronto, the city announced Tuesday that about 540 of its fall recreation programs out of the 10,000 offered for the fall session – roughly five per cent – were being cancelled due to instructors being unavailable. The programs include learn-to-swim programs, as well as learn-to skate, arts and fitness programs.

The city said those affected would receive a full refund and spaces in alternative programs would be offered where possible.

"This year, the city has prioritized the recruitment and training of lifeguards, swim instructors and other instructional staff to deliver high-quality fall programming during an ongoing nationwide labour shortage for such positions," it wrote in a statement.

"The City will continue its recruitment efforts this fall as it prepares for winter programming to begin in January."

Howie Dayton, the director of community recreation, parks, forestry and recreation, said earlier that a pause on mandatory lifeguard certification programs due to pandemic restrictions had contributed to the lifeguard shortage, but lifeguard and instructor training programs have been fast-tracked recently.

The City of Hamilton is also facing a shortage of qualified lifeguards.

Laura Kerr, manager of program development at the city's recreation division, said the shortage of qualified lifeguards was a growing concern in Hamilton even before the pandemic. COVID-19 disrupted training programs and forced classes to run with smaller sizes, she said.

"The (recreation) division has been actively training and recruiting instructor guards in Hamilton since last September and will continue to do so to meet service demands," she said.

"While recreation staffing has not yet fully recovered city-wide, services such as drop-in pool programs and registered lessons have been scheduled based on staffing resources and availability."

Kerr said city staff have seen increasing demand for aquatic programs, especially swimming lessons, after two years of ongoing closures and delays.

"We are working hard to meet this demand and address program waitlists as more resources become available," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2022.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press