LA PLATA, Md. (Feb. 4, 2016)—Not many fifth-grade students can say they have gone swimming in below freezing temperatures, but those at Mary B. Neal Elementary School now can.
Safely indoors in the humid air of the Donald Wade Aquatics Center at St. Charles High School with the water at a comfortable 84 degrees, and surrounded by seasoned swim instructors, the students took part in activities designed to teach them how to stay safe around water.
Instructors—some who had gone through the same program when they were in elementary school—also stressed keeping a level head during an emergency and offered tips about how to help someone who is drowning or who needs help in the water.
"Think so you don't sink," said Don Layton, aquatics director at Henry E. Lackey High School, who lead the presentation. "Take a few seconds to get your head together."
Each year about 1,900 fifth-graders wade through the program where they learn how to help someone in distress in the water and what to do if they were to find themselves in such a situation.
Hope Smith, an Indian Head Elementary School physical education teacher, started the program about 35 years ago with the help of Rob Chamberlain, aquatics coordinator at the College of Southern Maryland for 30 years, following the drowning deaths of two young boys in Western Charles County.
The program was held at the Indian Head naval base for the first two years. "We used to do it at the end of May in an outdoor pool and it was brutal," Chamberlain said. The program branched off to schools in areas that didn't have access to public pools, but by the mid-1980s it expanded countywide to all fifth-grade students, Chamberlain said.
Making a splash
Students don't walk into the pool uneducated. Physical education teachers prepare students before the field trips.
"They not only prepare the students with program information, they secure parent permission, volunteers, transportation, on deck supervision and safety, and many teachers join us in the water working with the students," Layton said. "Each school has the American Red Cross Whales Tales video lessons and posters."
Some teachers delve further into the water safety program. Debbie Haan at Arthur Middleton Elementary School goes over the lessons with each of her students, no matter their grade.
"If a student attends Middleton for all five years, they go through the in-school portion of Whales Tales five times by the time they see us," Layton said.
Haan has been with the school system for more than 30 years. She used to teach water safety to just her fifth graders, but in 2007 she lost a fourth-grade student to drowning and decided regardless of their age, children should learn about water safety.
"I don't want to lose another child to drowning," she said.
Water, water everywhere
The county is surrounded by water.
"We have the Potomac, Patuxent and the many feeder creeks and streams around and within our county," Layton said. Even asphalt- and lawn-covered neighborhoods have lakes, ponds, private and public swimming pools.
"This is not a 'play day'," Layton said. "It is an instructional program to help our students learn how to be safe in, on and around the water. How to not panic if they find themselves in an emergency situation and how to assist without putting themselves in danger if someone else is in trouble."
"They might not have to save themselves, but they might have to save someone else," Haan said.
"I learned that you are not supposed to go into the water if someone is drowning," said Elizabeth Nambooze, who said she is a pretty good swimmer. She added that she was going to tell her parents what she learned in the program to ensure they would know what to do if they were in a situation where they needed to help someone in trouble.
"It's the best program. They come back to school with wet heads and talk about [the program]" Haan said. "It's not testing; they don't have to study for it. It's a life lesson."