Columbus Park Pool | Courtesy of Chicago Park District

In late June, a group of teens tried to climb over the wall to get into the Columbus Park outdoor pool, 500 S. Central Ave. – and, according to Bernard Clay, president of the Columbus Park Advisory Council, this is a symptom of a larger problem. 

While Chicago beaches are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, this summer, both indoor and outdoor park district pools didn’t open until June 23. The pools are closed on Sundays, and other aspects of the schedule vary depending on the pool. According to Park District spokesperson Irene Tostado, the schedules are based on “historic community usage, park fieldhouse hours and park staff capacity.”

For Clay, it is the staff capacity that goes to the heart of the problem. He felt that the park district didn’t do enough to hire an adequate number of lifeguards to staff the pools for longer periods of time. If the pools were open longer, teens wouldn’t feel desperate to get into the pool. 

Tostado insisted the park district has significantly improved recruitment, and this year, they had enough staff to fulfill the staffing needs. She also said pool schedules can be adjusted depending on community needs.

According to phone footage shared with Austin Weekly News, on June 21, two days before the pools opened, a group of teens tried to climb over a one-story structure north of the pool in order to get in. Tostado said that, at the time, the pool was already filled with water.

Clay said the Park Advisory Council has been raising concerns about security in Columbus Park for a year, and he felt the pool wasn’t adequately secured at the time of the incident. Tostado disputed this characterization.

“Park security was made aware of the incident, and responded by resecuring the area promptly,” she said, adding that security has been “monitoring the pool area more closely” since then.

Tostado also said the pools are secured while they are open.

“A Chicago Park District security unit has been assigned to each [park district facility that has a pool] and is visible to the pool deck at all times during pool hours,” she said.

Clay said that while he wants the park district to do a better job of securing Columbus Park in general and the pool in particular, he understands why the youth wanted to break in. There are not many ways to escape the heat, and he believes the park district hasn’t done a good job of communicating when the pools are open. 

Public pools are closed two days a week, but while one of those days is Sunday, the second day varies depending on the pool.  In Austin, the Columbus Park pool is closed on Thursdays. Austin Town Hall fieldhouse, 5610 W. Lake St., and La Follette Park, 1333 N. Laramie Ave., have indoor pools which are closed on Mondays. Clark Park pool, 4615 W. Jackson Blvd., is closed on Saturdays.  The opening times are posted on each pool’s page on the park district website. 

Tostado said the schedules aren’t set in stone,

“Community use may change over the course of several years, and park staff will work with the community to respond and make adjustments to park hours, programming and pool schedules that suit community needs,” she said.

Public pools are open during the same hours as the beaches – 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. – but while the park district can close off pools, there is nothing to prevent beachgoers from using the beaches early in the morning or later in the evening. Clay said he sees no reason why the pools can’t be open later – it’s just a question of the park district hiring enough lifeguards.

“They say they don’t have enough staff, but they’re not hiring,” he said.

Lifeguard shortages were already an issue in Chicago before the pandemic, with former Ald. Michael Scott (24th) raising concerns about it during his community meetings. The pandemic only exacerbated it. 

Clay said the park district hasn’t done enough to recruit lifeguards, at least in Austin.

“We tried to work with the park district to get a junior lifeguard training program going,” he said. “All of the athletes in all of the high schools didn’t know they were looking for lifeguards. [The park district] could’ve sent recruiters around.”

Tostado said that, for the 2023 summer season, the park district took several steps to improve recruitment. They began recruiting in November 2022, “earlier than ever in [the park district’s] history,” held career fairs in three Chicago community colleges, including Malcolm X College, in February and March 2023. Tostado said the park district “worked very closely with Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Charter School Network, parochial schools, Chicago Community Colleges, aldermanic offices, Chicago Police District offices [and] Chicago Fire Department stations” to get the word out about the job opportunities and organize job fairs. The park district ended up getting 1,972 job applications, twice as many as they got for the 2022 season. This, she said, was more than enough to hire the 650 lifeguards they needed to open all public beaches and pools by June 23.

As for the junior lifeguards, Tostado said this was something that the park district is already working on.

“The [park] district is also ramping up efforts to build a pipeline for future lifeguards by hiring 50 aquatics interns and providing practical training for participants, ages 8 to 15 through Junior Lifeguards,” she said. “This summer, more than 550 participants have registered for the program an important milestone to build the lifeguard workforce following the post-pandemic shortage.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...