Proposed bill would create free swimming lesson program for low-income Florida families

The State of Florida may soon be taking a brand-new approach toward preventing the drowning deaths of children.

If approved and signed into law, a new bill would create a free swimming lesson program for low-income families in Florida. A local safety advocate said it could be a lifeline for families in the Sunshine State.

Jessica Winberry with Safe Kids Northeast Florida doesn’t want another parent to experience the never-ending pain of losing a child to drowning in water.

It happened again just last month on the Southside at Paradise Island Apartment complex where a young girl entered a retention pond without her parents knowing and drowned. Winberry is hoping a new law will save the next child’s life, and give them the skills to stay afloat or swim.

“Something like this looks attractive unfortunately to young kids, especially on hot summer days,” Winberry said. “A lot of times a child might be following something down here, chasing something down here like a butterfly to explore, and a lot of times there’s different grades to the slopes, they may get deep really quickly.”

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The “Swimming Lesson Voucher Program” would offer vouchers for swimming lessons at no cost to families with an income of no more than 200% of the federal poverty level, who have one or more children ages 4 or younger.

If the legislation becomes law, The Florida Department of Health will establish a network of swimming lesson providers that will accept the vouchers.

The bill is being introduced by Republican State Sen. Travis Hutson of District 7, which includes St. Johns, Flagler, and Putnam Counties. If approved it would take effect on July 1, 2024.

“Cost can be a barrier to many families, swim lessons can be expensive, and sometimes swim lessons just don’t make the priority list,” Winberry said.

According to data from the Florida Department of Children and Families, there have been 88 drownings statewide so far this year.

A closer look at News4JAX records reveals the various places children have lost their lives to drowning in our area, since 2016:

33 drownings in a pool14 in ponds6 in the Ocean4 in a River

According to the CDC, more children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than other causes.

Winberry hopes the bill passes and will impact the generations to come.

“A lot of time when you have kids who can’t swim, you have parents who can’t swim,” Winberry said.

The Senate bill that’s being proposed also states that any vendor that offers swimming lessons at a public pool that is owned or maintained by a county or municipality must participate in the program if requested by the department.

State lawmakers will start to consider the bill when their session begins in January.

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