While Edmonds’ outdoor Yost Pool reopened June 14 after being closed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pool won’t be accessible this summer to one enthusiastic group of local swimmers: the Yost Penguins youth swim team.
The situation has raised the ire of Penguin parents, who want the City of Edmonds to ensure – through its contract with the YMCA of Greater Seattle – that the community swim team will be protected in future years.
The Penguins team has trained and competed out of Yost Pool for decades, but not this year. Shoreline-based Dale Turner YMCA, which for eight years has been operating Yost under the City of Edmonds contract, said that is due to staffing shortages – in particular, a lack of certified lifeguards.
Dale Turner YMCA Executive Director Carolan Cross said, “Trying to emerge from COVID and to get our operations back up and running, this is a tough decision that we had to make this summer.”
According Cross, her branch and other YMCAs were closed for several months last year and those impacts are still being felt. “We took a big hit obviously financially across the association as well as from a staffing standpoint,” Cross added. “So we are today not in the position of the same staffing that we’ve had in years past and quite honestly that is really where our biggest struggle has been, is to ensure that we can have the appropriate numbers of staff.”
That includes hiring and providing swim coaches and lifeguards who are certified by the Red Cross.
“Because of COVID there’s been a lot of things that impacted staff and being able to be certified and being able to get staff recertified again,” Cross said, adding that compared to previous years, “we just don’t have the same number of staff that we did.” According to Cross, other pools in the area facing similar problems. “I know that a number of city pools, some other pools out in the county they’ve just not been able to open just because they don’t have enough staff in order to make that work,” she said.
The rub for Penguin parents, however, is that the YMCA has chosen to contract with two private swim clubs — the Cascade Swim Club and North End Otters masters swim team – who have reserved regular weekly blocks of times at Yost Pool this summer to hold their practices. The Cascade team will have exclusive use of all swim lanes during its times, while the Otters will operate in four of the six lanes available for open swimming.
Cross said the income received from those private clubs is a major factor in allowing Yost Pool to reopen this summer. “Quite honestly, the use of the rental funds that Cascade swim team is doing this summer is basically allowing us to generate the revenue in order to make this (pool) a viable option to provide for our community this year,” she said. That rental space revenue, she added, has enabled the organization to continue offering some of its other programming options at the pool.
Yost Penguins parent Kristen Paust said that while she understands the YMCA’s struggles, she and other parents want the city to strengthen its contract language to require community swim team access at Yost Pool.
“There ought to be a protection in that contract, in whoever the city chooses to help operate Yost, that a community swim team is a requirement,” said Paust, whose two daughters have swum with the Penguins. “It is an important part of our community and access to that pool for our community ought to be priority one.”
Dale Turner Family YMCA is operating the pool this summer under required COVID safety guidelines. The pool is closed on Sundays and pool users will be required to register and pay in advance for swim sessions to ensure safety measures are met by not exceeding capacity limits.
This year’s agreement calls for the YMCA to pay the City of Edmonds 15% of total revenues generated at the pool. The organization is responsible for staffing its operations while the city is required to maintain the pool and equipment.
Cross noted that the YMCA Greater Seattle organization, of which Dale Turner is a part, is not operating any community swim teams in the area this summer after pausing them last year amid the pandemic.
“As we were navigating through this year quite honestly we didn’t even know if we were going to be in a position that we would be able to operationalize the city pool this summer with the City of Edmonds,” Cross said, adding a decision was finally made in April to open the pool.
Paust said that since the pool is a community resource that belongs to the city, the parents would like to see Edmonds require what they feel would be more equitable access to its residents in the future by including contract stipulations for operating a public swim team out of Yost Pool.
Paust said she recognizes that the city could have simply opted to not open the pool at all again this year due to ongoing challenges related to the pandemic, and she is appreciative its agreement with the YMCA “figured out a way to get the pool open, which is awesome.”
“I am sympathetic to the challenges of the YMCA, which is they’ve shut down their operations through the pandemic, their memberships have cratered, so they’re probably really focused on just running the YMCA and keeping it afloat,” Paust said. “But they got that pool open in a way that is not producing the value that I believe it should, or that we as parents believe it should to the community of Edmonds.”
She added that while the city’s agreement with the organization uses terminology around the priority of the pool being for community swimming and access including a swim team, Penguin parents feels that stronger contractual obligations to protect those ideals may be needed in the future.
The group is rankled that the YMCA has rented a large portion of its reduced swimming capacity this summer to private teams located outside of Edmonds.
“Although it (the contract) had language around the intents of community swimming inclusive of a swim team, it does not force them to run a community swim program,” Paust said. “And so the YMCA at their discretion took that pool and has entered into agreements with other bodies’ swim teams, private swim groups to effectively kind of lease it to them, to charge them for the use of the pool.”
Paust said the Penguin parents group determined there were 320 kids who were on the Yost Penguins when it last operated in 2019. The summer team is open to youths ages 5-18, and participants had the entire pool available to them a couple hours in both the mornings and afternoons Monday-Thursday, to accommodate its multiple age groups of swimmers.
As a YMCA-sanctioned swim team, participants on the Penguins pay registration fees to the organization itself. The Dale Turner Family YMCA branch also normally operates a year-round swim team called the Orcas, which has tryouts and groups participants together in tiers based on their swimming skills.
Cross said that while the pool will be offering programs that are similar to those in years past — such as lap swim, open swim, family swim time, private swim lessons and group swim lessons — those will be “done on a much more reduced format.” Another big change this summer is the facilities won’t offer birthday party rentals and large group rentals, Cross said, which in the past allowed people to reserve the pool for “one-off” events and provided it with additional revenues.
“We’re doing a lot of the same programs, but we’ve just had to scale back,” Cross said. “Restrictions are in place for aquatics, so we’ve got capacity restrictions and then we’ve also got some staffing implications too. So there’s a combined situation there that by having the Cascade swim team come in is allowing us to have the revenue needed in order to actually make our pool run this summer.”
She added that public swimming pools usually operate at a deficit and because of various external factors, “It’s very, very hard to make a pool run in a profitable manner.”
Gov. Jay Inslee has announced that some pandemic restrictions will be lifted after June 30, but Cross said adjusting the operations of a public pool to any changes is different than many other businesses. “The problem is with aquatics you can’t just flip a switch and make that happen because of the certification process,” she said. “There’s certain positions that you can potentially have other staff come in and support but with aquatics it’s very controlled from a safety standpoint of having the certifications and so once that (easing of restrictions) happens you can’t just go ahead and expand programming.”
As the YMCA considered its options for running the Yost Pool this spring, Cross said it had to make decisions about what it felt could realistically be offered. “We’ve already planned for this summer because things have ebbed and flowed and changed over the past weeks and we can’t plan for that because we don’t know what that is going to look like,” Cross added in reference to any upcoming changes to pandemic guidelines. “We have to plan with the knowledge that we have at that moment in time and know in a way that we can actually staff it in a safe manner so that’s how we approached this summer.”
In years past, Cross said, the YMCA would be able to have over 100 people in the pool at any given time during an open swimming session. “With that you’re looking at having one guard for every 20 participants in the open swim format and so typically in the past we could have anywhere from six to eight guards that would have to be scheduled on a shift,” she said. “We’ve had to reduce that down this year just simply because we don’t have the staffing to be able to do that and then obviously with the capacity issues through the state.”
But the group of Yost Penguin parents aren’t happy that a significant portion of that reduced capacity and staffing is already reserved for other clubs.
The result, Paust said, is that “50% of the capacity of Yost Pool is now being used by for-payment swim teams and masters teams,” which left little time even available for the potential of a community-based swim program this summer. “There are swim teams that are going to operate out of Yost but they are not for the kids of Edmonds, in fact the kids of Edmonds cannot swim on those teams – they are full, we contacted them,” she said.
If there were a Penguins community swim team this summer, Paust said her two daughters would be participating because there are only “minor fees to swim with” them, whereas the Cascade Swim Club requires its participants to test at certain performance levels and is more expensive to join. “The beauty” of the Penguins organization is the inclusivity, and many parents feel it is “the one place where their non-athletic child could come do something athletic and feel successful,” Paust said.
“It’s great learning for kids, it’s a great lesson around anyone that wants to try gets a chance to swim,” she added. “I’m not faulting them (Cascade) in any way; they’re a private swim club that serves an important need in the community and there are swimmers that benefit greatly from the coaching and what they do. But they are a selective swim team that’s private, that has higher costs, it just serves a different purpose.”
A group of concerned Penguins parents banded together and reached out to the YMCA in an attempt to come up with creative solutions, even with reduced swim lanes and a lack of organizational coaches available, which might enable the local swim team to operate this summer but were left frustrated by those efforts. Some also felt that the organization had been less than transparent throughout that process.
“There is no option for the Yost Penguins to swim this summer,” Paust said. “There’s not a great willingness of the YMCA to entertain this team and I’m sympathetic to some of this although I will say my sympathies have waned a little bit as I learned about the (North End Otters) masters team that’s taking up regular lanes. I get that Cascade is paying important money that’s maybe helping you get Yost open; this masters team is taking up public swim lane time that should or could be available to the Yost Penguins – it’s just starting to feel not right.”
The group recently circulated an online petition to save the community swim team this summer, and that effort has garnered 239 signatures. Next, the parents plan to reach out to the Edmonds City Council. “We felt like we needed to come to the table with solutions not just complaining about the fact that there wasn’t a Yost Penguins,” Paust said.
“I think the message I’d like to see from the city is, ‘Look, we’re not going to let somebody lease, rent, or operate the Yost space for us without a commitment that they are going to run the community swim team,” Paust said. “And/or we’re going to carve out in this contract specifically someone who is going to run this community team because it’s an important part of our community.’”
Paust and Cross, who are both avid swimmers, agree that they would like to see the Yost Penguins hit the water again in the future.
“I wish that it was a different conversation,” Cross said. “I’m a swimmer myself, and so for me not to have our swim team running this summer that’s attached to our YMCA is something personally I would love to see happen.”
While the Cascade swim team program is renting space under a contract for this summer, “that does not mean that our Yost Penguins will never happen again,” Cross stressed. “We’re looking to bring our (year-round) swim teams back in the fall and I’m hoping that as we sit here this time next year we’ll be in a position that our Yost Penguins will actually be swimming in the summertime.”
The group of Penguins’ parents consider the issue to be an important matter of maintaining equity in access to public facilities. They would also like see the team given the priority and importance at the pool that they felt it had prior to the pandemic.
“I think the big issue is getting this team back in there,” Paust said. “A critical part of the Yost Pool is running that community team for kids, giving the chance for anyone that wants the experience of swimming the ability to do so regardless of how good of a swimmer they are or how much ability their parents have to fund this stuff.”
— By Nathan Blackwell