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Cali Owings, Published March 08 2014

Area schools revisit pool protocols in wake of incident

FARGO - An incident where a student was pulled unconscious from the Fargo South High School pool during a physical education class last month has area school districts re-evaluating their pool supervision standards.

Without state, county or city requirements for lifeguards, it’s up to those who operate public pools in the area to set standards for who watches the water.

In many cases, those capable of rescuing distressed swimmers are teachers also charged with leading class activities in the pool. But most lifeguard training groups say that to respond to incidents in a timely manner, it’s important to scan the water without distractions or other duties.

“As soon as they turn their back on the pool, you offer the opportunity for something to happen,” said Michael Guntler, who owns Safe-Wise, a risk-management consulting firm for groups like schools, YMCAs and camps.

There are few standards nationwide for water safety, which is why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been working on a set of recommendations.

Rethinking policies

There were two teachers on deck during the Feb. 18 incident at Fargo South High School. At least one of them was a certified lifeguard, according to the Fargo School District.

Following the incident, the Fargo School District and others are revisiting their pool use protocols. Though the Fargo School District operates three pools, including the one at Fargo South, it currently has no written policies for pool safety.

The district will add lifeguards on deck for its remaining swimming units this year and plans to review “every aspect of pool use,” said Superintendent Jeff Schatz.

“We will review our protocols for our pools, and we will make determinations about what we are doing moving forward,” Schatz said.

Moorhead Area Public Schools is also rethinking its approach to pool use in physical education classes.

While Minnesota law requires lifeguards at public pools, pools may be exempted if signs are posted that say no lifeguard is on duty. If children are swimming, an adult must supervise them. Though there’s no lifeguard at the Moorhead High School pool, classes meet this standard because an instructor is present.

“In light of recent events, we are re-evaluating all kinds of possibilities,” said Superintendent Lynne Kovash.

While swimming has been a part of the curriculum for 40 years without incidents, Kovash said the district will explore its options before fourth quarter swimming units start.

The West Fargo School District’s lone pool at L.E. Berger Elementary School is operated more like a community pool and is not used as part of curricular activities. A certified lifeguard is present when the pool is open for swimming lessons, adult swim and team practices.

The Bismarck School District uses pools run by the Parks and Recreation Department and YMCA. City ordinances require one lifeguard on duty per 2,000 feet of pool surface area. Assistant Superintendent Mike Heilman said there are never fewer than two lifeguards on duty for school events.

A widespread issue

The widely varying pool safety practices in area school districts highlight the lack of standards nationwide.

It’s one of the reasons why the CDC has spent seven years developing national guidelines to prevent drowning, injuries and water illnesses. The final first edition of the model aquatic health code will be available this summer.

In one of the draft proposals in the code, the CDC recommends most aquatic facilities that have unsupervised youth, teams or school groups have a lifeguard performing patron surveillance at all times.

But absent any national policy, it’s usually good business to have a lifeguard on duty.

“Most organizations that are responsible with their pools would always have a lifeguard on duty when the pool is open,” said Michael Guntler of Safe-Wise.

Drownings at school pools can pose financial risks for districts.

According to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune published in the wake of a student drowning Feb. 27 in a pool at a middle school in St. Louis Park, Minn., the school district in St. Cloud was sued after a 13-year-old drowned in a school there in 1999. The family was awarded a $500,000 settlement, and district officials in St. Cloud installed a camera-based drowning detection system, the newspaper reported.

Teaching or guarding?

During swimming units at Grand Forks’ Central and Red River high schools, the teachers in charge of every class are certified lifeguards.

Tim Delmore, who teaches health and physical education at Red River High School, said that protocol works well for the district. He said there hadn’t been any incidents in his 38 years with the district, and he’s never had to make a rescue during class.

Guntler said it’s “usually not best practice” to have an instructor or coach also acting as the lifeguard.

“A lifeguard’s job is to be constantly scanning the pool and preventing accidents,” he said. “You can’t coach and guard at the same time.”

While it’s not uncommon for lifeguards in many settings to be assigned other duties, there’s risk involved in that.

The CDC also recommends lifeguards directly responsible for surveillance not be assigned other duties, according to the draft of its model aquatic health code.

Ensuring safety while also teaching students comes down to classroom management, Delmore said. He gives directions on land before students are in the water.

“I’m not in the position where I’m having to teach and scan at the same time,” he said.

Instructors are also very familiar with their students’ swimming ability so they know who to watch out for, he said. It’s important that they aren’t overwhelmed with a large group of inexperienced swimmers.

After the Feb. 18 incident at Fargo South, Delmore said the P.E. instructors who use the district’s two pools reviewed their safety procedures and everyone felt comfortable with them. He added it might be useful for aquatics instructors at schools throughout the region to meet and share best practices.

“This whole incident brings a new level of paranoia to any swimming class. Safety should be No. 1,” he said.

“Parents send their kids off to school with the intention that they’re going to come back.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599