Due to a shortage of lifeguards, the Grand Forks Park District has had to reduce hours at two local swimming pools, one of which will close on the weekends.

The Elks Pool on 13th Avenue South closed on Friday, June 11, and will remain closed for the rest of the weekend. After that, the pool will be open from Monday to Friday, until lifeguard staffing levels can be met. Riverside Pool will remain open throughout the week, but both pools will close from 5 to 6 p.m., in order to give staff a break. Operating hours at both pools will be from 12 to 5 p.m., and then from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

“Unfortunately we don't have enough applications from people interested in being a lifeguard, in order to operate like we normally do,” said Jill Nelson, community relations and marketing manager for the park district.

Nelson said the district usually employs about 25 lifeguards that are split between the pools. This year, 15 people are working as lifeguards, which means organizers need to juggle some schedules and shift staff between pools. Lifeguards may wind up working longer hours, or spending more time in the sun.

And that’s a concern for Lisa Rollefstad, sports and recreation manager for the park district. Rollefstad said she has had to increase the time it takes for lifeguards to rotate off onto a break. Sometimes they can take a 10 minute break every 50 minutes, but other times it could be up to an hour and a half. Breaks from the sun are necessary to keep people alert. When fully staffed, lifeguards could usually take 20 minute breaks.

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“If you have only four lifeguards and they all have to be out here in the heat of the day watching 200-plus kids, it can be kind of grueling,” she said.

Peyton McNeea is a lifeguard for the park district. He’s a UND student who has a second job when he isn’t lifeguarding. He said he’s been spending a bit more time in the sun, but he’s been doing OK.

“The first couple of days weren't too good I guess, but it sounds like it's getting better,” McNeea said. “I've never had any problems.”

Swimming lessons will soon begin at the pools, and those lessons are taught by the lifeguards. Fewer lifeguards mean fewer open slots for kids to learn to swim. Lessons start at 10 a.m., and then lifeguards may go on to work the rest of the day, and finish at 8:45 p.m.

“That’s a long day,” Rollefstad said.

According to Nelson, Elks Pool needs four to five lifeguards on duty at any given time, and Riverside Pool needs up to six. Attendance at both pools averages anywhere from 250 to 300 kids per day.

Why the shortage?

Rollefstad said the pandemic is one reason there is a shortage of lifeguards. Many UND students who fill some of those jobs were not on campus during the pandemic, meaning they couldn’t attend certification classes at Choice Health and Fitness, even if they were available. Lifeguard certifications are issued by the Red Cross, which didn't allow certification courses last year.

Those certifications are good for two years, and the absence of lessons in 2020 meant some people lost their professional credentials. The Red Cross temporarily extended the deadline on expiring certifications, but some people didn't make that deadline and lost out. To recertify, they need to take the three-day course again, and pay the $200 fee.

The park district doesn’t pay for initial lifeguard certification, but it does cover recertification for people who are returning to work. The district is looking at ways to reduce the initial fee for applicants.

The shortage isn’t just local.

Multiple news outlets have reported on lifeguard shortages across the country. For BJ Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association, today’s shortage has been brewing for 20 years, but was exacerbated by the pandemic, which wiped out certification classes for the roughly 300,000 lifeguards that get certified every year.

The pandemic also made it more difficult for foreign exchange students to come to the U.S. Many of those students take lifeguarding jobs, Fisher said, but changing attitudes toward swimming lessons may play a bigger role. Parents, he said, haven’t been as interested in signing up their kids to learn to swim in the last 20 years. That shrinks the talent pool of those who can be lifeguards.

“We didn't get swimming lessons to millions of kids, to get them interested in swimming, which shows up now 10 years down the road,” Fisher said.

At the park department, Rollefstad said enrollment in lifeguard classes has been lower than usual. Previous years would see 20 people in a class, but this year saw some classes with 12 students, and a few classes had to be canceled because only a few people showed up. She’s hoping an upcoming three-day class can add a few more people to the district's ranks of lifeguards.