Senate advances bill to offer free kid swimming lessons for poor families

Drowning prevention is a personal issue for Sen. Travis Hutson.

The stories are heartbreaking.

A toddler drowned in the pool at his home daycare. A young child drowned in a hotel pool on vacation. A death at the beach in the strong current.

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in children between the ages of 1 and 4.

“Annually, there are enough children under the age of 5 lost to drowning (50 in 2019, 60 in 2020, and 75 in 2021) to fill three or four preschool classrooms,” according to the Florida Health Department.

The state is trying to lower those numbers.

A bill advancing through the Legislature seeks to help cut the number of deaths by paying for swimming lessons for families who might otherwise be unable to afford them.

SB 544 would set aside $500,000 to fund a swimming lesson voucher program to cover the cost of swimming lessons for children 4 and under if their families earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level, or $60,000 for a family of four.

The Florida Department of Health would establish a list of swimming lesson vendors, with at least one in each county.

“This has been a passion of mine since the summer working on it,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, a Republican from Jacksonville who called the issue personal.

His nephew once fell in a pool. Fully clothed, Hutson’s wife jumped into the pool 15 seconds later to rescue him, but fortunately, the boy had taken swimming lessons and knew how to flip and float.

“If he had not gone through the program, who knows what would have happened?” Hutson said Wednesday. “Granted, I was fortunate enough to put my kids through the program. Some of those in Florida are less fortunate, and they need the help to save lives.”

State senators read SB 544 for a third time Wednesday and voted unanimously 39-0, with several lawmakers praising the swimming lesson voucher program concept. No one spoke against it.

“I appreciate you bringing this good legislation forward,” said Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican. “My grandkids went through this, so I see the effects of it. The fact that you’re making it broadly available to all children is even more incredible, so thank you. It will save lives.”

Hutson said the state funding the swimming lessons vouchers with the $500,000 will make the program work.

“All credit goes to you for allowing us to have the money in there to make sure this program is successful,” Hutson said to Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .


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