It would only be ten minutes that Stefanie Klumpp would have to walk with her third graders on Mondays. Down from the schoolyard, through the residential area, over a bridge - and they would be there. But their destination, the indoor pool in Öhringen, will remain closed this winter. Swimming lessons at Klumpp's Hungerfeld School are cancelled.
Öhringen is actually not a financially strapped municipality. Half-timbered houses adorn the small old town, the city administration is located in an old castle. The town of 25,000 in Baden-Württemberg has an indoor and an outdoor pool. However, in view of the energy crisis, the municipal council decided to leave the indoor pool closed in winter - precisely to save energy.
The decision meets a worrying trend: every fifth elementary school child in Germany cannot swim. This number has doubled since 2017, as a representative Forsa survey commissioned by the German Life Saving Society (DLRG) shows.
Particularly dramatic: Half of the children from low-income families cannot swim. This proportion therefore shrinks the higher the income of the parents. "The children that we cannot educate today are potentially the drowning victims of tomorrow," warns Ursula Jung, Vice President of the DLRG Württemberg.
According to the survey, children with a migration background and from families with a low level of education also learn to swim a little later than others. And then especially at school.
Elementary school principal Klumpp has been noting the sinking ability to swim for years. Even before the corona pandemic, around 50 percent of their third graders could not swim or could not swim safely. "Now there should be more - and these children probably can't swim in secondary school either," says Klumpp. Swimming was often canceled during the Corona years, and this year 75 children are affected by the closure. According to Klumpp, the small school cannot afford to switch to another pool.
There is actually a lot of catching up to do. The school closures caused by the pandemic have changed the children a lot. "They were much less able to concentrate, they were less motivated, their working posture was worse and their motor skills were weaker," says Klumpp. It's getting better in everyday life, but it's not yet at the pre-pandemic level. "The effects of the Corona period were devastating for many children."
The indoor pool closure also affects the local DLRG. "Swimming is the best and cheapest life insurance," says Klaus Grimmeissen, chairman of the DLRG Hohenlohekreis. "And many children here don't get that."
The winter is actually the training time for the lifeguards, in the summer they stay awake in pools and at lakes. 130 children were scheduled for the seahorse courses, the "motivation badge" teaches the basics of swimming. In addition, further courses and training for lifeguards are cancelled. The waiting lists are getting longer and longer. "The frustration of 80 parents is discharged to the trainers," says Grimmeißen.
A higher priority should be given to swimming, even in times of high energy prices. "The closure is a disaster," says Grimmeißen.
The schools in Öhringen are saving energy themselves. The classrooms are heated to a maximum of 20 degrees, the light only stays on as long as necessary. "In Advent, we even gave up our beautiful Christmas lights with a heavy heart to save electricity," says Klumpp. Nevertheless, the rector understands both sides of the indoor pool debate, after all, energy consumption must be curbed. Mayor Thilo Michler (non-party) has four children himself – and is certainly aware of the implications of the decision.
In fact, the decision sparked heated debates in the city. The mayor advocated the opening. In a petition, more than 2,600 citizens are demanding the same thing: in addition to the importance of swimming courses, they emphasize the importance of water sports and the sauna for health.
But the municipal council decided in two tight votes that solidarity had to be saved in all areas. "The administration wanted it differently," says Monika Pfau, spokeswoman for the city, WELT. "It is an undecidable topic: climate protection and energy saving are good arguments, but so is the desire for sport, gymnastics and swimming."
The energy crisis is part of a multitude of problems for pool operations and swimming associations. They were on the agenda of the sports committee of the Bundestag last week. The complaints of the experts were urgent: the federal association of municipal umbrella organizations cited a renovation backlog of 8.5 billion euros for sports facilities, without taking into account the currently rising prices. Half of this is accounted for by bathrooms.
Many of the approximately 5,400 swimming pools date from the 1960s or 1970s, and around 90 percent of them are heated with gas. Municipalities usually pay extra for the bathrooms. The number of bathrooms is declining.
The warmer days are just around the corner and with it the time to go to the swimming pool again. But that is becoming increasingly difficult. Many bathing establishments don't even open anymore because they don't have the money for the renovation.
In addition, there is a thin staffing level. There is a lack of strength in schools or sports clubs, and around 45,000 lifeguards were unable to take a course due to the closure of the pools during the pandemic, as the DLRG reports. The lifeguards often lack prospects when the existence of the local pool is in question.
There is a shortage of skilled workers here, emphasizes DLRG representative Grimmeißen from the Hohenlohe district, to which Öhringen belongs. The bathing staff there has been rescheduled and is being used as a substitute at the building yard or as cleaning staff. "Of course, that wasn't good news for the employees," says city spokeswoman Pfau.
The indoor pool will probably be closed all winter. It would be four to six weeks before it would be ready for swimmers again. It's probably not worth it anymore.
Klumpp's third graders go to the gym on Mondays instead. All the children are greeted there in the morning and they sing the school song together. That had to be canceled in the past few years, says Klumpp. There is also a lot of catching up to do when it comes to experiencing community.
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