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Kids’ water safety is even more urgent with the pandemic. Here’s how to prevent accidents.


As a parent of four kids, I remember what it was like and how chaotic it felt when everyone was out of school for the summer and in search of things to do and ways to keep cool.

Although my children are older now, I feel for working parents whose kids’ summer camps, programs, swim lessons and recreational swimming have been canceled because of social distancing guidelines or budget cuts.

These cancellations are a particular concern for me, especially when it comes to learning about water safety: My son Zachary Archer Cohn drowned at the age of 6. Since then, my husband and I founded the Zac Foundation in his honor, and this is the first time in a decade we can’t offer free swim lessons and water safety education because of coronavirus-related pool closures.

And I’m afraid the pandemic is more reason than ever for lessons in pool safety.

Although I sympathize and empathize with parents trying to juggle conference calls and Zoom meetings while supervising young children, their children may be at a greater risk of drowning during this time. Parents who have rushed out to buy a baby pool or an above-ground pool or who have taken their kids to ponds, rivers, lakes or the ocean to cool off may not realize the dangers of multitasking and taking that “quick call” while supervising children in or around water. The No. 1 cause of unintentional death for children age 1 to 4 is drowning. Where do these drownings most often occur? Backyard pools. And for the next age bracket, ages 5 to 14, drowning is the second leading unintentional cause of death.

We have learned that drinking and driving don’t mix and that smoking increases one’s risk of developing lung cancer, and we understand the value of seat belts. We must now recognize the importance of basic water safety and dryland water safety education.

Water safety begins the minute an infant leaves the hospital. From the bathtub to wading pools, to spas and pools, and areas of open water, such as ponds, lakes, rivers and oceans, parents or caregivers should never — not even for a moment — leave young children alone or in the care of another child anywhere near water, even if a lifeguard is present.

Most young children who have drowned in pools had been out of sight for five minutes or less and were in the care of one or both parents at the time, according to a study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Formal swimming lessons reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to another study, this one in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The rule of thumb: An adult with swim skills should be within one arm’s length, providing “constant touch supervision,” because it’s too easy for an accident to happen when a water watcher’s head is turned.

But in the coronavirus era, swim lessons have been hard to come by as states and municipalities nationwide have worked to reduce the number of cases by either closing pools and programs altogether, or severely limiting access to them. As a result, children’s swim skills are underdeveloped just as we hit peak summer weather and pools and beaches begin reopening.

For one thing: Many parents may think they are keeping their children safer by insisting they swim with puddle jumpers or life jackets. Those devices only work when you’re there to be sure children are wearing them. In reality, the flotation devices don’t teach children proper positioning in the water or build muscle memory. Time and time again, we learn of tragedies where children, accustomed to swimming with a puddle jumper, drown while swimming unsupervised, because caregivers are distracted by taking a conference call, cooking dinner or showering and don’t realize their child has slipped out the door, opened the gate and fallen into the pool.

Given these sad stories, we must teach children what it feels like to be in the water without a personal flotation device. Until you have access to a pool, beach or lake this summer, there are some basic safety tips to discuss with your children, which we call the ABCDs of water safety:

Adult: Always swim with an adult supervising.

Barrier: Don’t open doors or gates to pool areas without an adult’s permission. (Parents should ensure that pools are fenced in on four sides, doors leading out to pool areas have alarms and gates are self-latching.)

Classes: Take water safety classes, such learn-to-swim and CPR. (If you can’t access classes this summer, talk to your children about water safety. Much like you teach them not to cross the street without an adult or touch a hot stove, now more than ever, you need to teach them not to go near water without an adult.)

Drains and devices: Stay away from pool drains, and don’t rely on flotation devices. However, always use a flotation device when in, on or around areas of open water.

Whether you are an adult or a child, it’s important to remember if you see someone in trouble, reach or throw a safety object; don’t go into the water. You can help someone without putting your own safety at risk.

Ideally, your children would learn these skills in gym class, but unfortunately, there’s no organized effort to make swim classes, or even dryland water safety training, available to all young children in the United States.

To be sure, we’re not going to prevent every accident: My son was an excellent swimmer. In fact, he was advanced for his age. But he died because we didn’t know our pool drain was installed incorrectly and functioned improperly and unsafely.

We have to do everything we can to keep our kids safe, and as we are at home more this summer, and maybe a little distracted with the endless Zoom calls, it’s imperative we remember to have our eyes wide open when it comes to our children and open water.

Karen is co-founder of the Zac Foundation, which has funded free water safety camps for more than 20,000 children in at-risk communities nationwide.

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More reading:

Drowning happens so easily. Here’s what parents get wrong about water safety.

New guidelines say kids should start swim lessons around age 1. Here’s what to look for.

She almost lost her daughter to drowning. Here’s what this mom wants you to know.

Getting to the pool again after my child nearly drowned