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700 more children to get free swim lessons as Hillsborough looks to tackle spike in drownings

Whitney Fullington looks back at her mother Ashley as she climbs out of the pool during a drowning prevention class at Seal Swim School in Lutz. Last year, child drownings in Hillsborough country spiked to at least 11 cases, more than the previous two years combined. Hillsborough County has made an extra $50,000 available for a swim safety program for children aged under 5. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Mar. 14

TAMPA — Free swimming lessons will be made available to an extra 700 children this year as Hillsborough County officials hope to counter a recent spike in the number of the children drowning.

Hillsborough County commissioners last week agreed to increase the funding for a swim safety program by $50,000 to cover swim lessons and transportation costs for every child enrolled in Head Start, a federal program that provides education, health and family support services to pre-school children.

The county is also stepping up inspections of pools in apartment complexes to ensure they are equipped with safety equipment.

The focus on drownings comes after a Tampa Bay Times report highlighted that 11 children drowned in Hillsborough in 2018, the highest number in the state and more than the two previous years combined.

Related: A deadly toll: Hillsborough leads the state as number of child drownings spikes

The new funding will mean swim lessons will be provided for about 3,250 children, many of them from low-income families who may not be able to afford private lessons.

"I feel strongly we should do everything we can to teach every child how to swim with the goal of eradicating youth drowning," said Commissioner Ken Hagan. "This is a critical next step."

The classes include instruction about the dangers of water and then time in the pool with a swim instructor. Children learn to float, to overcome their fear of submerging their face and how to kick in the water. The lessons are conducted at YMCAs, Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center and other pools.

The additional funding raises the county's spending on the program to $117,000 per year. The extra money will mostly go to pay for the cost of transporting children to pools.

The Children's Board of Hillsborough County is also taking steps to reduce the number of child drownings. In addition to education programs aimed at parents and caregivers, it will this year spend an extra $140,000 on a mobile swim program that brings swim instructors to low-income apartment complexes with communities pools. It will also make up to $100,000 in grants available for simple maintenance fixes like pumps and filters that prevented swimming lessons from being offered in some income-restricted apartment complexes.

The county's code enforcement department also plans to conduct safety inspections of apartment complexes and hotel pools this year. Ron Spiller, director of the county's code enforcement department, said there are about 400 of those in unincorporated Hillsborough County.

"We'll set up a schedule where we'll try to do that in the early part of the year before the prime swim season arrives," he said

That move was made at the request of Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said several of the deaths in 2018 occurred at apartment complexes.

"This is going to go a long way to help prevent a lot of the drowning deaths," Murman said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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