Aquatics Best Practices Q&A

Aquatics best practices

Aquatics best practices have evolved over the last year. Greg Schmidt, the Aquatic Center manager at Eastern Washington University (EWU), reflects on the changes and shares what they have been doing to ensure they are meeting current aquatics best practices.

How have aquatics best practices evolved over the last year?

GS: On March 13, 2020, we were ordered to close the facility the next day at the end of business. We remained closed until September 21, 2020. School started at EWU on September 23, 2020, so we were open just in time for school; however, classes were virtually 100% online. The number of students on campus was reduced dramatically as a result. Of the normal 4,000 students in student housing, only about 600 were placed. As the pandemic closure stretched into six months, I was in constant contact with my colleagues at EWU and through the Washington Recreation & Park Association Aquatics Network. Discussions with the Washington State Department of Health and governor’s office led to guidelines that were specific to our state and also in alignment with the CDC’s guidelines.

Best practices started out with lap swimming only and swim team usage both with just one person allowed per lane, swimming right down the middle to maintain social distancing. U.S. Swimming lobbied for relaxation of the one-person rule, and that was granted; first we expanded to two per lane; then the rule was further relaxed to four per lane for swim teams, and two per lane for lap swimmers. In discussions with the coaches here and my supervisor, we stayed with one per lane for lap swimming, unless the two people are living in the same house. Swim teams stayed with two per lane, starting and stopping at opposite ends of the pool.

I started with very restrictive use of the locker rooms, like several other facilities in the area. Only lap swimmers and water aerobics participants were allowed to use the locker rooms, and no showers were permitted. After a couple of weeks of operation, we reopened the showers but did not open the locker rooms to anyone else for changing. The locker room toilets have to be accessible to everyone, of course, but we locked the public restrooms that were not part of the locker rooms to reduce shared contact surfaces. After that, we loosened up to allow athletes and lesson participants to shower, but then asked them to exit the way they came in, which is from the balcony overlooking the pool.

Everyone is required to wear a mask at all times when not in the water. Chairs are set at the end of each lane for masks, kickboards, hand paddles, pull buoys, etc. along with a rag and disinfectant spray to wipe down the chair before they leave. The guards also wipe them down after each swim. We require our lifeguards to wear their mask on the tower, too.

Another evolution has been instruction. At first, instruction was 100% non-contact with the instructor on deck, students six feet apart minimum and limit of five in any instructional program — including swim team members per coach. The state then relaxed this requirement to just retain the six-foot separation of participants, and then it was permitted in Washington for swimming instructors to be in the water if they wear a face shield and mask underneath — or a face shield skirt on the bottom. I have not done that. We are staying with instructor on deck, and only offering upper levels or instruction that can be done safely with the instructor on deck. 

What are aquatics best practices for training staff, whether in-person or virtually?

GS: Our state worked on this extensively over the summer and came up with standards that align with what everyone else was doing across the country. Guards must wear their mask on the stand and use rear approach rescues as much as possible. For rescues close to the wall, reaching poles or extending a rescue tube to the victim rather than jumping in are recommended.

Another change was made to the first breath protocol: we are still expected to deliver the first breath in 1.5 minutes, but now it must be done with a bag valve mask (BVM) rather than a pocket mask. I set up stations around the deck where a BVM/pocket mask combo was accessible, so my guards could just grab it as they ran past. We also are expected to have on full PPE when backing up a primary rescuer, unless we get in the water to help bring the victim to the side. Once the primary is on deck, he/she is also expected to don a mask and gloves prior to proceeding with care. This change has been the most difficult to manage, because of the extremely tight 1.5-minute first breath requirement. Clearly, donning a mask after getting out of the water and starting with two-person BVM before delivering the first breath creates some delay. We use an intraoral mask here, because it’s small, fast and fits nicely into any fanny pack. I’ve attached one to each of our BVMs to reduce the delay, but again because BVM is difficult to do alone, it causes a delay to have to wait for both guards to be ready with full PPE before starting rescue breathing.

As for in-service training, we are teaching these modifications to existing protocols and asking guards to bring someone from their household to serve as their team’s victim throughout the training. This minimizes the number of persons that must be in close contact during training. Teams are not allowed to switch personnel, of course.

We have also offered multiple times for in-service to keep the numbers down at each one. Although I still provide snacks as always, they are pre-packaged and individually wrapped items like granola bars.

In terms of programming, how do you decide what to offer and when to schedule it?

GS: At EWU, I have scaled back the offerings to account for the dramatic reduction of students on campus as well as the customers who haven’t returned out of caution. I am not offering any open swim, rentals or events of any kind where people would congregate in groups. The governor eventually banned those activities outright. Although the age group swim teams continue to practice, swim meets are not permitted now; and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association postponed high school swimming until February. Fall sports were postponed until after winter sports and were scheduled to begin in March.

To maintain a safe traffic pattern in/out of the facility, and minimize contact surfaces, I am offering only lap swim and upper-level lessons. Very few parents are signing up for the upper-level lessons, but springboard diving is doing well. It’s a safe activity that’s easy to social distance. I’ve also had some people attend my stroke clinic with no contact instruction, of course. Lap swim times were limited.

Operationally, what are some of the biggest considerations to keep a pool up and running?

GS: Overstaffing is a big one. If someone on your staff is COVID-19 positive, or even must quarantine due to exposure away from work, you must have adequate staffing to cover those hours. It’s a double whammy, since fewer guards are applying now, and the staff is already smaller than usual. So, if quarantining causes you to be down a few people, it can cause a major problem.

Constant vigilance is the key to staying open and enforcing your protocols consistently. It only takes a momentary lapse of caution to cause an infection. We need to set a consistently good example as managers, or we are going to end up paying for it later.

5 Quick Tips on Aquatics Best Practices

  • Over-hire. Have lots of subs.
  • Don’t let your guard down. You’ll pay for it later.
  • Set a good example.
  • Stay positive. Notice good things your staff does and tell them.
  • Be sensitive to differing views. Be a uniting force, not a dividing force.

Extra: “At-Home Water Safety Education” is one example how to creatively engage your community with aquatics from a distance.

Heather Hartmann is the editor for Campus Rec Magazine. She can be reached at

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