Lifesavers fear COVID-19 has created a generation who can’t swim

COVID-19 may have created a generation of non-swimmers who will never be safe around the water, warn experts.

Enrolments at swimming schools across Australia in September – a peak time for lessons – dropped 25 per cent compared with last year, according to an analysis of enrolments at 125 swimming facilities by Royal Life Saving Society Australia.

Ahaan Kumar, 5, has continued with swimming lessons, apart from a gap during lockdown. Credit:Peter Rae

It found the drops were greatest in NSW. This included a 40 per cent fall in children aged seven to nine, and a 51 per cent plunge in children aged 10 to 12, taking lessons. The data did not include Victoria where all swimming lessons had stopped.

Without additional lessons, these children were unlikely to ever reach national benchmarks that recommend every 12-year-old Australian should be able to swim 50 metres, float for two minutes and know how to respond to an emergency, Royal Life Saving's chief executive Justin Scarr said.

"If a seven-, eight- or nine-year-old child can’t yet swim 50 metres and tread water for two minutes, then they should be in swimming and water safety lessons," he said.

"Non-swimming children become non-swimming adults, and that is a ticking time bomb."

In the 12 months to the end of June, 248 people fatally drowned and 504 were involved in non-fatal drowning incidents. Of those aged 15 to 24 who fatally drowned, nearly 70 per cent were male and 48 per cent died while swimming.

Primary school is when children "truly develop swimming for fun and fitness", Mr Scarr said.

Children were ready to learn, had the cognitive development and motor skills, and an ability to work in small groups.

Stopping lessons at this age broke the chain when most children learnt water safety, swimming and lifesaving skills.

Pratiksha Kumar's son Ahaan, 5, has been enrolled in swimming lessons since he was six months old, and stopped only when the pool was closed during NSW's lockdown.

Some friends and family had pulled their children out of classes, said Ms Kumar, from Pemulwuy in Sydney's west. But she was confident the Aquatic Safety Training Academy pool in Seven Hills, where Ahaan did his regular Wednesday morning lesson, was clean and safe.

Ms Kumar grew up in Fiji, where there was "so much water but no focus on structured swimming lessons". She did not learn to swim until high school after her family had moved to Australia.

That made her determined her children would learn at a young age. Ahaan can now dog paddle, has confidence in the water and has some basic water safety skills, and knows how to swim to the side of the pool.

Whenever events such as bushfires or COVID19 disrupted swimming lessons, some children would never return and others would take longer to get back into the routine, Gary Toner, executive officer of the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association, said.

"We may end up with a whole generation who may never learn to swim," he said.

Mr Toner, who is based in Queensland, said parents were confident the pools were taking the right precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They worried, though, about other parents and families who might attend lessons or visit the pool while sick.

Cost can also be a barrier to lessons but Ms Kumar said NSW's Active Kids voucher had helped. It provides a $100 subsidy to each child enrolled in a sport or activity.

These voucher systems across Australia vary, and the NSW program doesn't cover school holiday programs, which water safety groups are lobbying to address.

There are also other inconsistencies with the vouchers. In Queensland, for example, Mr Toner said, vouchers could be used to join a swimming club, regardless of whether that person could swim. But they couldn't be redeemed for swimming lessons.

In Victoria, where some regional pools are reopening, the swimming schools can't meet demand.

Melinda Crole, chief executive of YMCA Australia, said aquatic centres provided a safe, social place to exercise, practise vital swimming skills, relax and feel a sense of connection to community. "All these things are vital during a COVID impacted summer."

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