Almost six million swimming lessons missed in pandemic

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Mathilde was becoming an excellent young swimmer before the pandemic hit.

A regular at the St Kilda Sea Baths, she had learnt freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke by age nine. Butterfly, the most difficult stroke, was next on her list.

Kathryn Bowen and her daughters Isidora, 8 and Mathilde, 11, outside the St Kilda Sea Baths, where they have swimming lessons when public pools are open. Credit:Justin McManus

Now aged 11, the grade 5 student’s progress in the water has stalled as public pools have closed with each lockdown that Melbourne has experienced in the past two years and school swimming programs were postponed.

Her mother, Kathryn Bowen, says she can only guess what impact the interruption to Mathilde and her younger sister Isidora’s swimming lessons will have.

“They had their first tennis lesson yesterday after months of it not happening, and I could see that there was a drop in their abilities because of the COVID restrictions, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they pick up the swimming quickly or there is a bit of work to build it back up again,” she says.

New data released to The Age suggests the task of getting Victorian children back up to speed in the pool will be huge.

In 2019, a total of 26,717 children received the Victorian Water Safety Certificate, an award given to primary school students who can swim 50 metres continuously, answer water safety questions and perform simple rescues.

Last year, just 3501 children were awarded the certificate. So far this year a mere 1791 children have got it.

Life Saving Victoria and the state government created the certificate in 2016 responding to a Victorian coroner’s recommendation to make swimming lessons part of the primary school curriculum following the drowning death of a 12-year-old boy in 2012.

Life Saving Victoria’s group manager of education, Liz Tesone, said the agency was concerned by the lack of access to in-pool swimming lessons during the pandemic, so had focused on building children’s water safety knowledge in the classroom.

Millions of children’s swimming lessons have been cancelled in Victoria since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit:Peter Rae

“As critically important as it is to develop kids’ swimming skills and fitness to reduce their risk of drowning, so too is developing their understanding of water safety concepts, so they can make informed and safe decisions around water throughout their lives,” Ms Tesone said.

The sustained interruption to swim safety programs for Victorian children coincided with the state’s worst drowning tally in more than 20 years: 61 fatal drownings in 2020-21.

The state’s 10-year annual average is 40 drownings.

The number of hospital and emergency department admissions from non-fatal drowning incidents also shows signs of trending upwards, Emergency Management Victoria says.

The agency’s draft water safety strategy for the state states that “an alarming spike in statistics in the past 12 months demands a response”.

It estimates that 5.9 million individual swimming lessons have been cancelled in Victoria since early last year, not including school swimming lessons.

An Education Department spokesman said public health restrictions limited the opportunity for schools to run swimming and water safety lessons in 2020 and 2021.

“We’re working closely with Life Saving Victoria and the Victorian aquatic industry to provide classroom-based options to help students acquire basic water safety knowledge, and water-based programs as soon as public health directions allow.”

The state government committed $55.2 million to school swimming lessons in this year’s state budget, to be spent in 2022 to 2024.

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