WATERVILLE, Maine — Swim instructors and lifeguards across Maine have noticed a worrisome trend since the start of the pandemic: Kids are regressing in their swimming and water survival abilities.
According to Waterville YMCA CEO Ken Walsh, swim instructors and lifeguards at the Y's summer camps observed a trend of kids who were behind their peers in swimming ability. He attributed the problem to the pandemic, when facilities had to close pools and reduce class sizes for COVID-19 safety protocols for months.
Kids in overnight camps and most day camps participate in swim lessons as part of their camp experience.
In 2019, Ys in Maine provided swim lessons to more than 9,000 kids. In 2020, this number was reduced by 50 percent, or 4,500 kids, because of the pandemic, according to Meg Helming, Director of Advocacy & Impact for the YMCA Alliance of Northern New England.
“Our pools were closed, and then group sizes were greatly reduced to comply with COVID safety guidelines,” Helming wrote in an email. “We know there is a backlog of kids/families that need swim lessons.”
Lauren Dwyer, the aquatics director at the Waterville location also known as the Alfond Youth and Community Center, said they had to drop class sizes by 50 percent, down to a ratio of one instructor per three kids.
Amy Caldwell and her 3-year-old, Elyse, was among the families affected by the reduction in lessons. She said she and her husband tried to teach Elyse how to swim but were unsuccessful.
"She's afraid of the water, and on our own we had not been able to get her past her thighs,” Caldwell said.
She was concerned because they live close to a lake in central Maine.
"It made us nervous that she was afraid of the water and that if she needed to know how to swim she couldn't,” Caldwell said.
Elyse was one of hundreds of kids and families waiting for their turn to get in the pool to learn those basics.
“We might have had a child who was 3 [years old] before the pandemic, and they came back at 5 years old, and they’re just starting to learn those basic water skills and safety," Dwyer said. "This has happened across the board as far as regression. They’re not as comfortable in the water anymore. We’re kind of starting over.”
In other cases, some kids who already had some basic swimming skills had to stop lessons.
"For some kids, it's as basic as getting them back in the water, doing one or two lessons, where they realize, 'Wow, I can do this.' Their muscle memory is there,” Dwyer said. “For some of the kiddos that were really young, they don't remember it at all, so it's like they're starting completely over."
Drowning is a real fear for parents in Maine. In the past five years, 11 kids under age 18 have died by accidental drowning, according to Maine's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Here are the data for kids under 18 drowning in Maine for several five-year spans of time:
Data from the most recent five-year span, from 2017-2021, show that of the 11 accidental drownings, five kids drowned in rivers, four drowned in ponds, and two drowned in pools.
More than half of those were kids under age 6.
Nationwide, stats from the YMCA show drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death among kids ages 1 to 4 and the second leading cause of injury-related death for kids ages 5 to 14.
A 2009 study published in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children ages 1 to 4.
"I've had to rescue hundreds of kids -- oceans, pools, lakes,” Maine state lifeguard coordinator Sean Vaillancourt said. “There's no question about it: Open water is more dangerous to swim in than a pool, but they both have their risk because people get comfortable.”
Vaillancourt said the dynamics of open water, plus the unknowns on the bottom and the colder water make it critical for parents to pay even closer attention to their kids.
"It is important that kids learn how to swim as best as they can to be confident swimmers in the ocean, because if you're not a confident swimmer in the pool, you most certainly won't be a confident swimmer in the ocean,” Vaillancourt said.
Dwyer said starting swim lessons early is crucial for kids to learn water safety.
"Age 3-and-a-half, 4 years old is when they're starting to develop their independence in all aspects of life, so to gain that independence in the water, where if they fall in, they know what to do,” Dwyer said. "It's definitely harder the older they get to erase that fear of the water."
Elyse Caldwell’s mother said her daughter is starting to overcome that fear.
"It's definitely reassuring knowing that she's not afraid of the water but also knows her limitations and knows how to get out of the water,” Caldwell said.
"Registration for our swim lessons and camp is filling up very quickly," Helming wrote. "Such a pent-up demand."