Philly pool season begins after challenging search for lifeguards

Kids swim at the James Finnegan Playground pool

Joyful kids were welcomed into the pool for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic closed city amenities at the James Finnegan Playground in Southwest Philadelphia on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Pool season is officially open in Philly for the first time in two years, following the Department of Parks & Recreation’s difficulties hiring enough lifeguards.

For Jeremiah, a 12-year-old from South Philly, this day couldn’t come soon enough.

“I feel like it’s going to the pool for your first time again. It’s a special day,” he said, plastic blue shark goggles flipped upside down on his head. “I love it. I’m enjoying myself.”

Kids swim at the James Finnegan Playground pool
Kids finally getting to enjoy the pool on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Last summer, without pools or rec centers open in the city, Jeremiah spent all his time inside.

“I stayed in the house, did school, cleaned, and that’s pretty much it,” he said, adding that he’s excited to play more basketball this summer at city rec centers and swim in the pool every day.

Kids swim at the James Finnegan Playground pool
Joyful kids were welcomed into the pool for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic closed city amenities at the James Finnegan Playground in Southwest Philadelphia on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Syeita Adams, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia with her 10-year-old daughter Malaya, is also glad pools have reopened. Last year, she struggled to find activities for Malaya.

“I’m excited that they’re able to swim. It’s hot, so they’re excited, I’m excited. It’s great,” Adams said, adding that having the kids back in pools “keeps them off the streets.”

Ultimately, the city was able to hire 215 of the 377 necessary lifeguards before pools opened. Lifeguard numbers have steadily declined for years, with Parks & Rec officials saying they often struggle to match hourly rates offered by private swim clubs and water parks.

This year, recruitment was especially difficult, since the department was unable to use its usual strategies in high schools across the city. To attract more lifeguards, the city increased wages to $15 an hour, conducted a media campaign urging people to apply, and had virtual job fairs. The department also attributed the hiring problems to a national trend of lifeguard shortages.

Lifeguards keep an eye on swimmers at a Philly pool
Lifeguards and swimmers were back at the pool at the James Finnegan Playground in Southwest Philadelphia on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Lifeguard training is free for children, but those older than 24 need to pay $175 for their certification.

“Anybody under the age of 24, we’re actually covering the cost for them to be certified, and we’re doing that through some funding through our partners at the Office of Children and Families,” said Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “Specifically for young people.”

Will Coleman speaks from a podium
Will Coleman, a pool safety instructor in Philadelphia, said the city has trained the best lifeguards and there’s a need for more on opening day of pools on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With reduced lifeguard numbers, the city was forced to reduce the number of pools it opened this year. The city plans to open 47 of the city’s 68 outdoor public pools on a rolling schedule throughout the summer. Sixteen pools will open this week, in time for the Fourth of July.

The Parks & Recreation Department has been criticized for its decision not to open pools in lower-income areas such as East Germantown and Hunting Park, one of the hottest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. City officials refuted claims that the department’s pool decisions favored higher-income, whiter neighborhoods.

Kids at the James Finnegan Playground pool
Kids at the James Finnegan Playground pool in Southwest Philadelphia wait for the whistle that will signal the start of pool season in Philadelphia on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Deputy Mayor Cynthia Figueroa stood by the city’s pool selection process.

“In 2020, everybody, how many pools were open? Zero, cero. This year, we’re able to open 47 pools,” she said. “We had to make some tough decisions, but we have to remember we’re still managing a COVID crisis, and we had one of the most challenging years ever … Philadelphia’s experience was one we saw across the country.”

Ott Lovell also stood by her department’s pool-opening decisions, characterizing those who took issue with them as “armchair critics.”

“Oftentimes, people make assumptions without all the information in front of them. … We’re really proud that we have 79% of the pools that are opening …  in communities where the income level is $45,000 or less,” she said. “I feel that the process we used is defensible, considering all the factors we had to consider.”

Kids and adults swim at the James Finnegan Playground pool
James Finnegan Playground in Southwest Philadelphia on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ott Lovell said that her department is working on a system to transport people to pools from neighborhoods that lack them, but that the program had yet to be implemented as of opening day.

The full schedule of pool openings can be found here.

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