It’s the first year that all three pools in the city of Charlottesville will be open since the start of the pandemic – but a shortage of lifeguards is likely to reduce opening hours

Megan Hicks never hesitates to take her children in the water.

Hicks’ three children waded in their underwear in the umbrella-shaped fountain in Greenleaf Park. Charlottesville Parks and Recreation workers opened the spray areas on May 11 – when it reached 79 degrees. Hicks says her children ran to play in the water right after the workers finished their tests. Even when the water stopped squirting from the fountain, the young children continued to play tag, their feet kicking against the small puddles of water on the blue carpet.

Hicks relies on parks, pools and lakes in Charlottesville and Albemarle County to help keep her kids busy — and cool — during blazing summer days.

“The pool is the only saving grace in Virginia,” Hicks said. She watches her children run to the playground. “That’s why we’re going there. I’m not kidding, we go there a few times a day.

The city and county of Albemarle, however, have a shortage of lifeguards for their public swimming pools and lakes this summer.

Albemarle County will only open two of its three lakes this summer. Walnut Creek Lake will be closed for the season unless at least five additional lifeguards are hired. In addition to the closures, the two lakes will operate four days a week instead of seven.

The shortage could also result in limited capacity or shortened hours for Charlottesville aquatic centers, but it’s too early to tell, said Vic Garber, assistant director of parks and recreation.

Three of the city’s aquatic centers — Washington Park, Onesty Family and Smith Aquatic Centers — need 110 total lifeguards to operate effectively. Only 70 are on staff at the start of May.

Garber said the entire department is understaffed, but lifeguard positions are the most immediate need.

To attract more applicants, Charlottesville is waiving the $135 fee for the lifeguard certification course. They offer a $250 signing bonus and an extra $250 if lifeguards stay after the summer. Charlottesville lifeguards are paid $15 an hour.

Good swimmers are encouraged to apply. Candidates must be at least 15 years old and certified. the the lifeguard certification course, which lasts approximately two weeks, is available at Crow Pool. Candidates wishing to benefit from the fee waiver are encouraged to contact the department.

Apply to be a Lifeguard at Charlottesville Parks and Recreation. You can also find jobs in Albemarle County for “lifeguard” search in their job portal.

Garber has never seen such a severe staffing shortage in his 10 years with the service.

“We’re looking for great employees with a great attitude and work ethic,” Garber said.

Garber hopes their training program will inspire people to apply. He also thinks that as summer approaches, by Memorial Day, more people will apply.

The town also needs 22 camp counselors to help run its six day camps. About 30 people are on staff as of early May, Garber said.

This is the first year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that all three aquatic facilities will be open. Last year, only Washington Park was open for the summer.

Albemarle County is also scrambling for more lifeguards. The county needs 11 more lifeguards to open its three lakes — at Walnut Creek Park, Mint Springs Valley Park and Chris Greene Lake Park — for swimming this summer, said Amy Smith, assistant director of parks and recreation for the county. Albemarle.

“We hope that by the end of school we will have a few [applicants]”Smith said.

She said the county is struggling to compete with higher-paying jobs. The salary of the lowest paid lifeguard has increased from $12 to $15 in 2021.

Smith said the county was unable to offer bonuses like Charlottesville. Albemarle promises to waive or reimburse fees for lifeguards to become certified in the county or elsewhere.

“We’ve spoken to other parks and recreation locations across the state and everyone seems to be on the same page with the lifeguards,” Smith said.

For some Charlottesville residents, swimming pools mean a lot. Rebekah Oliphant remembers going to her town’s public swimming pool and local creeks growing up in Alabama. Entry prices were cheap, just quarters to play in the small pool. Often she would play with her siblings in a nearby stream or river. These are some of her fondest memories, she said.

Now, she looks forward to creating similar moments with her children in Charlottesville.

“It’s vital,” Oliphant said. Her own two children joined in the fun with Hick’s kids at the Greenleaf Park wading pool. “They deserve to go out and have fun.”

If public pools should close or have tighter hours, Oliphant is ready to go to private pools, such as the YMCA or Fry’s Spring Beach Club.

But private pools can be expensive.

Piedmont Family YMCA membership fees for families start at $99 per month. Membership in private associations, such as the Hollymead Citizens Association and Fry’s Spring Beach Club, can cost families anywhere from $325 to more than $1,000 a year.

Last year, Albemarle County charged $3 per adult and $2 for children ages 3-12 for day passes to its three lakes. Charlotteville $4 to $8 fee for city residents for daily admission to its swimming pools. The city offers family memberships starting at $53 per month.

The pandemic has already taken a toll on access to outdoor physical activity for her children, Oliphant said. She fears that the reduced opening hours of public swimming pools and lakes will make it even more difficult for families who cannot afford the extra expense of private clubs.

“What I want to see is kids outside doing this” – she gestures to the kids running around the oversized fountain – “and not sitting around the house just because it’s hot.”

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