Greenwich High School considers making swimming class optional, bucking a 45-year tradition

Photos from the high school girls swim meet between Darien and Greenwich at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

Photos from the high school girls swim meet between Darien and Greenwich at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

GREENWICH — A 45-year tradition may be coming to an end at Greenwich High School.

The school's aquatics and water safety program has been a requirement for all ninth grade students for almost half a century, but officials are considering making the course optional. 

"I will be very honest. I really think ninth grade is too late to be introducing students to swimming," said Superintendent Toni Jones during a meeting of the town's Board of Education Thursday night.

But Kathy Steiner, a teacher in the school's Health and Safety Education department, advocated for maintaining the class as a requirement, as it teaches students life-saving techniques, she said.

"As a shoreline community, we have a responsibility to teach all of our students the basics of swimming, how to be safe in and around the water and what to do in case of a water emergency," she said during the public speaking portion of the meeting.

About 830 children age 14 and under drown every year in the United States, according to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign and the National Safety Council.

“We often take for granted that everyone knows how to swim and survive in the water,” Steiner said. “However, this is a false notion. The reality is not everyone has the resources to learn, whether that be financial, time or ability.”

Jones said about 90 percent of freshman arrive at Greenwich High already knowing how to swim. She said the idea of making the class optional was for the remaining 10 percent. The superintendent also mentioned expanding the swim program to include water aerobics classes or lap swimming. 

Board members seemed to support the idea of an optional swim class. Member Laura Kostin said her own children dreaded taking the class. 

"It is the most awkward time to be in a swimsuit with your peers," she said.

Jones agreed.

"When you talk about how young people feel about their bodies, there are young people who are very uncomfortable in that class," she said.

Board chair Joe Kelly argued that the class teaches students how to react to dangerous situations. He told a story about an ex-Greenwich High student who used lessons learned from the class to survive a perilous situation: he and two friends took a boat onto Long Island Sound and when they decided to go for a swim, the boat's anchor came loose and the vessel drifted away.

"It was because of the training he received in (the) course that he was able to calm the two other kids down and, hours later, they were rescued," Kelly said.

Member Cody Kittle agreed with Jones that ninth grade was too late to offer a mandatory swim class. To prove a point, he noted that the district does not provide a driver's education class.

"You can mandate any sort of safety class for something and if thousands and thousands of people go through the school, presumably at some point it will benefit someone," he said. "Driving is much more dangerous than swimming for teenagers at least in term of fatalities. If the principle is (that) we're going to require classes that could potentially save a life over decades, then we have better places to look."

Kelly ended the conversation by saying further discussion is necessary on the topic.