PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Drownings in Florida reached a somber record in 2021 with 98 children across the state. In 2022, 21 children have already drowned in Florida and we haven’t even reached the peak summer months. Now, local and state leaders are on a mission to combat the growing numbers and make swim safety more accessible to kids.
At the North Greenwood Recreation Center in Clearwater Tuesday, 6-year-old Aliyah Bonilla Turcios slowly dipped herself into the pool. The kindergarten student, like many of her classmates, is a little timid around water. Yet, within just a few seconds, her smile widened as she clutched onto a kickboard and slammed the top of her feet and calves across the water’s smooth surface.
Turcios is one of 350 Clearwater students from Belleair Elementary School who traded their physical education classes for two weeks of swim safety.
“Swimming lessons are fun,” she said.
Clearwater Parks and Recreation leaders have spent at least five years helping students get acclimated to the water during the late spring months leading up to summer break, but they skipped the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of the kindergarten through fourth graders are getting their first experience in a pool.
Belleair Elementary School PE teacher Luis Ramos said he loves watching his students enjoy the experience.
“Just after one or two weeks of lessons, the confidence you see in so many of them makes it all worth it,” he said.
The lessons may not be long enough to truly teach the kids to swim, but lifeguards are able to focus on teaching the kids what to do if they fall into a pool, how to help a friend or sibling in trouble and how to use safety equipment like life vests.
Thomas Heine, the Aquatic Coordinator at North Greenwood Recreation Center, said those are critical lessons.
“If you think about Pinellas County, we are a peninsula on a peninsula surrounded by water, and drowning statistics here in Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay area are really frightening,” he said.
ABC Action News dug through DCF reports of the 98 drownings in Florida in 2021. Of those, 24 were in the Tampa Bay region. Many of the reports indicated a pattern: kids “wandering away from home," ”Getting out of the home undetected” and sadly, many “left unattended,” according to paperwork filed with the state.
The Red Cross said adult supervision is the most important factor, but swim lessons can reduce the risk of a child drowning by 88%.
Shaun Beasley said that's what makes their partnerships with the Juvenile Welfare Board, Clearwater for Youth, Stingray and ION Physical Therapy Network, to provide the swim lessons during the school day so important.
“This is something that literally gives me goosebumps when I watch it," Beasley said. "We will potentially never know the impact we are having but if we can teach a kid who falls into the pool to get to the side without panicking then we are doing our jobs in these classes."
Clearwater, like many cities, offers extremely affordable swim lessons. Just $10 total will provide kids with between six and eight classes. They also hope to expand the classes during the school day to every rec center.
State leaders are also stepping up to prevent drownings.
The “Every Child a Swimmer Law” takes effect for the 2022-2023 school year and requires public schools to ask parents if their kids have taken swim lessons. If the answer is no, schools must provide swim safety education materials.
The YMCA is also offering a long list of summer swim courses.