‘Everyone should know how to swim’: Soaring demand for Hamilton rec programs leaves kids hung out to dry

At 8 am “on the dot,” Lauren Rivard was at her computer, poised to register her kids for swimming lessons ahead of the summer.

“By 8:01, I had one kid in classes and two without,” the Hamilton parent said.

Rivard managed to get her 10-month-old into a “parent and tot” swim program in Stoney Creek. Her older two, ages 8 and 10, are on the wait list for lessons.

“I don’t know how the city expects us to keep kids safe by the water if you can’t get them in,” she said.

In March, there was a “noticeable increase” in demand for recreation programs as provincial restrictions eased, the city says.

As of Wednesday, there were 9,500 registrations for spring programs, such as swimming, dodgeball, hip hop and art — the highest number of registrations since December 2019, Laura Kerr, manager of program development in the city’s recreation department, said in an email

Kerr said the city anticipated this spike and “doubled” its spring programming capacity, adding 6,017 spaces.

“Demand for programs has fluctuated greatly throughout the pandemic, with changing comfort levels to participate, alongside the fluctuation of capacity limits,” she said.

But, despite the city’s efforts, demand is up and, for some programmes, supply is down.

Currently, the city is offering just 58 per cent of its swim-lesson programming compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“Like many other service industries, our part-time workforce is still recovering and services will be dependent on staff availability,” Kerr said.

She said the city is closely monitored registration and staffing resources “to expand programming where possible.”

As of Wednesday morning, there were 93 spaces left in early-childhood swim programs across the city — more than a third of them on weekday mornings, which isn’t necessarily an option for working parents.

Overall, there are 429 spaces available in swim programs, which include adult lessons and fitness classes.

Options are limited for parents who miss out, Rivard said. Swim lessons at private Hamilton-area clubs range from $30 to $55 for a single class, whereas city-run programs cost about $60 for a package of nine. Income-based subsides are also available.

Even if you can afford them, they’re “surprisingly hard” to find, she said.

But, ultimately, safety is her biggest concern.

“Everyone should know how to swim,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much you make. That shouldn’t be the requirement.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning is a “leading killer,” especially among kids.

“Learning survival swimming skills or basic swimming skills is like an immunization against drowning,” Barbara Byers, the Lifesaving Society’s senior research officer, told the Star.

During the pandemic, opportunities to learn to swim have been “limited,” she said.

Parents are also reporting challenges registering for other programmes, such as summer camps and sports.

Despite waking up early on enrollment day, Nadine Farkas wasn’t able to register her kids for even one week of the city-run Camp Kidaca, which offers significant subsides for lower-income families.

Farkas said she was relying on public day camp as lower-cost child care for July and August.

“Where do you put two kids, eight and 11, when there’s no school?” the single parent wonders.

The city said Wednesday there were still 98 spaces available at camps, which operate out of recreation centers all over Hamilton. Farkas said day camp would have to be close to her central Hamilton home in order to make pickup and drop-off feasible.

Not having child care factored into her decision to leave a full-time job — something she’s been forced to do repeatedly during boots of remote learning.

“I would be working, but … I had to stop because I don’t have any care,” she said. “I just gave up.”

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