Henrico Fire, Schools promote water safety to prevent drownings

So far, nearly 5,000 2nd graders have improved their water skills through the Learn2Swim program

Before heading to the pool, lake or beach this summer, Henrico County Assistant Fire Chief Mark Cumashot urges families to make a water safety plan. 

“You must have a plan for any event that could happen in the water,” he said. “Drowning is preventable.”

A plan may include using personal flotation devices, learning CPR and knowing the location of the closest hospital. He said adults should stay in the water with children, not just nearby. 

“Parents often use time by the water to decompress, but you can’t take time off when your child is in the water,” Cumashot said. “Drownings can happen in as little as 1 inch of water.”

More than 4,000 fatal, unintentional drownings occur in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accidental drownings are a leading cause of death for children under 14. In Virginia, 15 children drowned accidentally in 2021, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“Small changes can save a life, like putting on a life jacket or learning CPR,” Cumashot said. “It can be the difference between surviving or becoming a statistic.” 

First and foremost, he recommends teaching all children how to swim. 

With support from Henrico County, Henrico County Public Schools is taking a significant step in that direction with Learn2Swim, a program launched two years ago to save lives by promoting water safety and swimming instruction. The initiative supports the Board of Supervisors’ advocacy efforts to prevent drownings.

During school hours, second grade students travel by bus to the NOVA Aquatics Center at Regency and seven local YMCAs to develop skills and build confidence around water. 

More than 3,500 students from all 46 elementary schools completed the program in 2022-23, including students attending school virtually. About 1,400 students from 20 schools participated in 2021-22.

Through six weekly lessons, students practice aquatic activities to improve range of motion, endurance, muscular strength and gross motor skills.

Additionally, the lessons could spark a student’s interest in competitive swimming or other water sports, said Mark Brandenburger, health, physical and driver education specialist for Henrico County Public Schools.

“We want our students to be water-ready as a part of growing as life-ready learners,” Brandenburger said. “Safety is fundamental. We want them to recognize their limitations so that we can prevent unintentional injuries, accidents or even deaths.”

The program meets a Virginia Standards of Learning objective for assuming responsibility for personal safety. This year, 100% of Henrico second graders acquired new motor skills in the water. 

“It’s developmentally an appropriate age to work on swimming skills and the strength necessary for safe water activities,” Brandenburger said. “The program develops skills while reducing fear of the water.” 

By offering free travel and lessons to every second grader in the county, Learn2Swim bridges the gap for those without access to pools or aquatic instruction.

“We have four different levels of swimmers, which allows us to individualize the instruction, and they are all able to grow from their own starting point,” he said.

Swimsuits are available at no cost, and students may wear HCPS swim caps.

The program is supported by the Henrico Division of Recreation & Parks, NOVA Aquatics and the YMCA of Greater Richmond.

Henrico helped to fund the construction of the NOVA Aquatics Center at Regency and fully funded the construction of the Frank J. Thornton YMCA Aquatic Center, which offers county residents a free place to swim on weekend afternoons. 

“The Learn2Swim program saves lives,” HCPS Superintendent Amy E. Cashwell said. “It’s a stellar example of how public schools, government, nonprofits and families can work together to ensure that all our children have the tools to be safe around the water — and enjoy central Virginia’s wonderful recreational opportunities.”

Brandenburger expects Learn2Swim to become more efficient, leading to higher-quality instruction. 

“I am relieved to know that students are learning what to do and what not to do around water,” he said. “To see the smiles on their faces exploring something new makes me and all of their teachers exceptionally happy.”

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