Mt. Scott Community Center aquatics program supervisor Andy Amato looks into an empty pool where families and children typically attend swimming lessons, Jan. 19, 2022. Lessons at the Mt. Scott pool as well as at other Portland Parks & Recreation indoor pools are temporarily suspended due to staffing shortages, but may resume in early February.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

Andy Amato started as Director of Aquatic Sports at the Mt. Scott Community Center and Indoor Pool in southeast Portland in January 2020 — when COVID-19 was still just a whisper on another continent.

Today, two years into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to disrupt so many milestones. For Amato, that meant temporarily suspending a crucial part of childhood: swimming lessons.

He just didn’t have enough hands on deck.

When Amato stepped into this new role, he was stepping into a deep-rooted community. Half of its staff have worked at Mt. Scott for over 20 years. They gave swimming lessons to children and then helped those same children to obtain their certification as lifeguards. Now many of these children work at the pool.

“Seeing that full circle is really exciting. Also just to know that you had that impact, that you were able to build that relationship and have them so excited about learning to swim and being excited in the water , that they now in turn want to give that back,” Amato said.

Mount Scott Pool normally employs 87 lifeguards and pool staff. But with people calling in sick, being laid off or leaving for full-time jobs elsewhere, there are only 25 left.

Amato and his team stepped in to help where they could. Two weeks ago, Amato was a lifeguard for three days to keep the pool open because he had no staff. But this dedication comes at a cost. According to Amato, many of his employees suffered from physical and emotional exhaustion.

At the beginning of January, Amato had to make a difficult decision: to cancel swimming lessons.

Classes require more pool staff than other aquatic programs such as aquatic fitness classes, swim laps, or swim games. Amato reallocated its remaining workforce to keep these programs running.

Swimming lessons at Mt. Scott Community Center are currently on hiatus due to staffing shortages as reported on January 18, 2022. Other Portland Parks & Recreation indoor pools are also on hiatus and are expected to resume in early February.

Swimming lessons at Mt. Scott Community Center are currently on hiatus due to staffing shortages as reported on January 18, 2022. Other Portland Parks & Recreation indoor pools are also on hiatus and are expected to resume in early February.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

Money is not the problem. Two years ago, Portland voters approved a local option tax to help support community centers such as Mt. Scott. The center therefore has the financial resources to provide swimming lessons and other basic services;

They just don’t have the people to do the job.

Josh Lehner, a state economist, said that’s a challenge that many Oregon recreation and service-focused businesses currently face.

“We hear it from some ski resorts. Not all trails are open all the time, partly due to work. I know some community centers have restrictive pool hours for labor availability,” he said. “You see restaurants, they are closed a few days a week, whereas before they were open seven days a week. It’s definitely one of the ways companies deal with workforce challenges.

Amato is frustrated. But he also has hope. He tries to guide his team through a period of universal uncertainty.

“You keep wondering how are we going to get out of this? You just keep staying positive about it. It will get better, we will have more staff here,” he said, “not being able to offer this program is really difficult for us right now. We hope it will only be a few weeks off and we can slowly start to put them back together and start again.

Oregon is a state filled with rivers and lakes, and the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep. Concretely, water safety is an essential skill. But beyond the practical, COVID-19 is also erasing existential milestones. For many, swimming lessons are an integral part of childhood. It’s when a child’s parents and community ground them, whether the child knows it or not, they learn to live in the world.

Adults swim at the Mt. Scott Community Center on Jan. 18, 2022. Swimming lessons at the pool are suspended due to staffing shortages, although the adult aquatic center is still open.

Adults swim at the Mt. Scott Community Center on Jan. 18, 2022. Swimming lessons at the pool are suspended due to staffing shortages, although the adult aquatic center is still open.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB