COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- For the second straight year, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting public swimming pools; closing them last year and creating a shortage of lifeguards this year.
Sources say that the pandemic canceled lifeguard training classes last year, and the resulting shortage has forced many pools to remain closed or open with reduced hours.
"Yeah, this year was definitely kind of a shock to realize how limited we were, and how many lifeguards we really had when the season kicked off," said Jenna Press, director of marketing and communications for the YMCA of the Pikes Peak region.
Training has resumed this year, but not in time for pools to be fully staffed for the season and the training can't be accelerated due to safety requirements.
Organizations such as the American Red Cross train and certify around 300,000 new lifeguards annually, but many lifeguards haven't re-certified and those qualified for training are busy working at pools.
The YMCA trains and staffs lifeguards at city pools and at Prospect Lake.
Among other factors contributing to the shortage: Fewer foreign exchange students coming to the U.S. to fill lifeguard positions.
Another issue is that pools have long relied on high school and college students to be lifeguards, but finding enough in early and late summer is harder as many students' semesters end late or start early.
Suggestions for resolving that issue include relying more on the growing demographic of retirees to be lifeguards, and increasing pay for existing lifeguards.
"We did offer pay increases this year, as well as a bonus on their first paycheck to drum up interest," Press said. "Did it work? We still haven't seen the numbers we'd like to see."
Meanwhile, managers are prioritizing lifeguards to work at the busiest pools, with less busy pools closing early. Press said that some in the city that aren't heavily used are closing earlier, but no pool has closed because of inadequate staffing.
Experts fear that closing outdoor pools and leaving them unattended or understaffed with lifeguards could create a greater drowning risk for kids.
Emily Moller, a mother of five who took her children to the busy Wilson Ranch pool Thursday, isn't concerned.
"I appreciated that they're cutting hours for the opening of the pool, rather than compromising safety," she said. "So I would rather deal with not being able to come as often, than feel like we're not safe at the pool."
Moller said that going to a private pool isn't an option for her family.
"I couldn't afford it," she said. "Coming here is affordable and allows my kids to swim more often than they otherwise would."