TAMPA — Mobile and inquisitive but heedless to the danger from pools and ponds, children under the age of 5 make up the bulk of of Florida's child drownings.
That's why swim lessons are part of Head Start, a federal program that provides education, health and family support services to pre-school children.
But about 700 children in the program do not get to take a potentially life-saving Hillsborough County swim safety course because there are not enough federal funds to bus the children to swimming pools.
That has to change, said county commissioners, who on Thursday instructed county staff to find a way to expand the program. It comes after a Tampa Bay Times report showed that Hillsborough led the state in child drownings in 2018, when the number of deaths rose to 11. That was more than the previous two years combined.
"Hopefully, we can move forward to reach every child in Head Start," said Commissioner Ken Hagan.
About 2,000 children every year take the swim safety program, eight classes that 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 program is relatively low-cost, about $50,000 per year. But that does not include the cost of transporting children to YMCAs, Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center and other pools.
"We've had some challenges with funding and transportation to get them there," said Dana McDonald, a special projects coordinator with Hillsborough County.
Many children in Head Start come from low-income families who may not be able to afford swim lessons. Hagan said he wants county staff to come up with a solution.
"The good news is that for being such an important and successful program, this one does not break the bank," he said.
In addition to the county's swim safety program, the Children's Board of Hillsborough County already spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on education programs aimed at parents and caregivers. This year, it will 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.
Citing a number of deaths at apartment pools in 2018, Commissioner Sandy Murman said more needs to be done to make those safer.
"I'm pretty concerned about this," she said. "The number of drownings last year was just too high for me."
In 2018, 88 children drowned in Florida, according to state Department of Children and Families data. Four have already drown this year.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or at (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.
Keeping children safe:
• Pool owners can install fences with a lock and self-closing gate to keep children away from the pool when an adult is not present. • Installing door alarms can alert a parent or caregiver that an exterior door has been opened, especially if the door has access to any body of water like retention ponds, canals or even fountains. • Young children can drown in as little as one inch of water. Ensure bathtubs, mop buckets & inflatable pools are drained after each use. • Always provide adult supervision for children in or around water. Children drown silently and in as little as 20 seconds. Designating a "water watcher" is a simple measure that ensures an adult is supervising children at all times when they are in or around water. • Enrolling children in formal swimming lessons reduces their lifetime chances of drowning by 88 percent. • Become CPR Certified. A drowning victim has a significantly increased chance of a positive outcome if CPR is started immediately versus waiting for first responders to arrive.