At their neighborhood pool in West Philadelphia, Markyda Anderson’s little boys couldn’t wait to get back. They got tired of playing in a nearby splash pad while lifeguards made periodic checks on chlorine levels. So after the break was over and swimmers were welcome again, they raced back and – plunk, plunk – into the water they went.

“It gives the kids something to do — something positive,” said Ms. Anderson, a 38-year-old nurse refreshing with Isaiah, 7, and Elijah, 3, at the Tiffany Fletcher Recreation Center in the city’s Mill Creek section. Without the pool, Isaiah said, “I’d stay inside and play Fortnite on Xbox.”

It was scenes like this one, at dozens of city pools, that sent 71-year-old Joy Watson into a rage for her own Overbrook Park neighborhood, about a mile away. Next to her row house, the one with the Barack Obama mural on the side, the Charles Baker Playground pool has not been open since July 2019.

“They say it’s a lack of lifeguards,” Ms Watson said on Friday. “My question is, you have all those other pools open, and you can’t switch the lifeguards?”

In that sense, Philadelphia is no different from other cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, where a lack of lifeguards has led to shortened hours or pool closures altogether. That shortage stemmed from the pandemic, which caused employees to find jobs elsewhere and disrupted training for potential future hires. About a third of the nation’s roughly 300,000 public pools were hit last year, and 2023 is just as bad or worse, according to the American Lifeguard Association, which runs training and certification programs.

With July on pace to become Earth’s hottest month on record, the lack of lifeguards and pool closings are especially painful to many of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents who need safe, cool places and who live in pockets of the city that disproportionately experience the effects of poverty, poor health and gun violence.

Mill Creek, where 97 percent of residents are nonwhite, has broad challenges, with residents’ health especially at risk during temperature spikes, according to the Philadelphia Heat Vulnerability Index, an interactive map produced by the city that outlines danger zones during extreme weather. According to city statistics, nearly half of the people in the neighborhood live below the federal poverty line, and a quarter of adults lack a high school diploma. One in five has diabetes, and hypertension, obesity and asthma are rampant.

This year, the city’s parks and recreation department began a major campaign to get its public pools ready, spending millions more than it has in the past and pledging to open 61 of its 70 pools for all or part of the season. For the first time, the city is requiring and providing swimming lessons for all 6,000 summer campers. Most of the campers are Black, and fewer opportunities for swimming lessons in poor communities have put Black children at greater risk of drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the Fletcher playground, two dozen daycare campers splashed in the pool, jumped rope and played on monkey bars. The facility, formerly called Mill Creek, was among the first to open this year, on June 14, the first day of summer break. It also had a new name, in honor of Tiffany Fletcher, a 41-year-old park employee and mother of three who was struck and killed by a stray bullet in September just outside the playground.

“This is not just an essential service; it’s a renaissance in the use of public spaces,” Bill Salvatore, deputy commissioner of parks and recreation, said of the push to open the pools.

However, thousands of residents are waiting for that renaissance where it is most needed. The city has worked to spread the lifeguards around but is still several dozen short of opening more pools. And at least four other pools that have yet to open as a result of staffing issues or long-term repair needs are in areas where residents’ health is at high or very high risk, according to the heat index. Temperatures in the city dipped into the 80s this weekend but were forecast to reach the upper 90s later this week.

On Friday, at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, day campers and visitors played on swings, played basketball and rocketed through the splash pad, a set of three- and four-foot water fountains shooting out of the concrete. Steps away was the freshly painted but waterless pond, behind a locked chain link fence.

Wannetta Williams, 56, escorting children out of daycare, recalled her own youthful summers at other Philadelphia pools, where, she said, she and her friends stayed out of trouble, learned to care for little ones and socialized like teenagers.

“They depend on the outdoors,” Ms. Williams said of the children. “They need this activity and fresh air.”

A planned pool opening date of July 5 has come and gone, the result of the lifeguard shortage, but Mr. Salvatore said more staff are in the pipeline. February’s “Philly Phreeze” winter pool plunge, the city’s first of its kind, raised funding for $500 and $1,000 lifeguard bonuses and helped get more than 730 people to apply for lifeguarding and other work. The Gathers pool, when it opens, may be among those with hours extended for several weeks beyond the typical weekday closing.

In Overbrook Park, that’s no consolation for those who live near the Baker playground. Ms. Watson, whose home with the Obama mural overlooks the park, and fellow neighborhood activist, 43-year-old Aaliyah Small, pointed to a corner where just four hours earlier a 22-year-old man had been shot in the head.

To Ms. Small, president of the Baker Playground Advisory Council, lifeguards are only part of the problem. While he acknowledged that gun violence is a problem in the neighborhood, she also said that opening more pools could help address that by creating needed diversions for residents. People, she said, need to reverse their negative thinking.

“They look at these shootings and say, ‘What if the kids playing are affected by it?'” Ms. Small said. “What they should be saying is, ‘If we open the playground, then they won’t be affected by it.”’

Jaevon Williams contributed reporting.

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