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Summer Camps Shut Out of Parks Dept. Pools: We’re Drowning in New Costs

Day camps that used to offer sessions at the city’s public swimming holes have been treading water with pricier private pools since the beginning of the pandemic.

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Campers used to be able to use Parks pools like the one at Hamilton Fish Park on the Lower East Side, June 28, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Local summer camps were cut off from city public pools when COVID struck, but three years later they’re still locked out — leaving them stuck in the deep end of more expensive private swimming options, providers planning for the upcoming season told THE CITY.

The Department of Parks and Recreation has barred camp programs from its more than 100 public indoor and outdoor pools since fully reopening them during the summer of 2020. 

First officials said it was because of pandemic-related capacity restrictions and later because of a persistent lifeguard shortage — despite camps routinely providing their own.

Camp operators across New York City say they’re still unsure if they will be able to dive into the city pools this summer — and time is running out to figure out options. 

“We are still stuck in this limbo of the unknown,” said Alana Tilman, director of Young Judaea Sprout Brooklyn Day Camp. “I reach out to Parks all the time and they continue to push back the timeline of when — or if — they’re going to make the decision.”

It’s a $32,000 question.

Tilman’s camp is just a few blocks from the Red Hook pool run by the Parks Department, a short walk that campers would easily make before the pandemic. 

It was not just conveniently close but relatively cheap, she said: The total cost was about $8,000 to $10,000 in summer 2019 — including the price of a permit and providing their own “aquatics team” including lifeguards. 

Last summer, without access to the Parks pool, Tilman brought her campers to the East Midwood Jewish Center — which cost $40,000 for pool usage, not factoring in the cost for transportation.

“I couldn’t do other things at my camp because I was spending so much money on swimming,” she said, noting that while she charges a modest tuition, it’s still a small faith-based nonprofit.

A Parks Department spokesperson declined to comment on the record but shared that it’s still too early to know if they’ll have enough lifeguards to fully staff beaches and pools this year — and that will determine whether they can accommodate day camps, even if they bring their own certified lifeguards.

As of the beginning of March, 319 people had passed the qualifying lifeguard exam this year, compared to 240 last year, according to Parks Department data. The tests continue through July.

Getting Soaked

Stacie Soto is the executive director of the Oasis Day Camp in the East Village, where she says the swim program is the “cornerstone” of the program.

“Swimming lessons every day is what attracts people to our camp,” she told THE CITY. 

In the past she’s used the public pool at Hamilton Fish Park on the Lower East Side, which was both affordable and convenient. This year she’ll likely use the two indoor pools at the Village East Swim Club instead. 

“We’ve had to utilize private indoor pools in the community — which costs our program tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. 

Kids play whiffle ball during a summer day camp at the Asser Levy Recreation Center (which has a pool) on East 23rd Street in Manhattan, July 18, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The added expense forced them to eliminate other offerings, Soto said, “but also it was so needed because many of our families send their kids [specifically] for the swimming lessons.”

At Tilman’s camp, they’ve had to cut field trips for older children just to pay for the private pool costs. Swimming is a big part of the Sprout Brooklyn program, so they go to the pool around three days a week. 

“The pool is always on the front of our brain and it impacts every single decision that we made,” she said.

Wayne Rosenfeld, the executive director at the East Midwood Jewish Center, noted his pool is already booked up for the summer. He said they try to keep the costs to day camps as low as possible. 

East Midwood charges about $460-$475 an hour for pool usage, according to Tilman. 

“We’re probably charging just enough to make a little bit of a profit,” Rosenfeld told THE CITY. “I guess I could be charging a lot more but we’re here for the community.”

Tommy Ho, the aquatic director at the Village East Swim Club and Seahorse Swim Club, said they charge around $500 to $600 an hour for the Oasis Day Camp to use the pool, with an additional daily fee of $150 per swimming lane.

‘A Matter of Justice’

Ho’s two indoor pools are a rarity in the city, he noted, and other parents jump at the chance to have a place for their little ones to learn a life-saving skill and get some fun exercise.

“A lot of kids never get a chance to swim,” said Ho. 

The problem is a concern for camps across the city, according to Alicia Skovera, the executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey.

“There’s only so many pools that are out there and even if [a camp] did find access to private pools, there are so many camps that are trying to utilize those same services,” Skovera told THE CITY. 

Earlier this month, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams announced that the City Council plans to fund more swimming programs and to explore ways to open up Department of Education pools year-round.

The Council will also examine the possibility of opening up more pools in neighborhoods that don’t have any, Adams said.

“Year-round access to public pools is critical to New Yorkers’ health and safety,” she told THE CITY at the time. 

“When one out of three Black and Asian students, and one out of four Hispanic students can’t swim, we’ve got to consider free swimming programming and the maintenance of public pools as a matter of justice.”

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