Turning Tides

The Shawnee Mission Aquatic Center adapts during the COVID-19 pandemic


Erin Dory

An SMSD school hosts a swim meet Jan. 7 at the Aquatic Center. The building opened for SMSD use during the 2019-2020 school year.

Ruth Demeke and Stella Grist

The rise of COVID-19 forced the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) Aquatic Center to close for over six months. The effects of the closure are lasting despite the aquatic center reopening in September. 

“During COVID-19, one thing that was constant was change,” aquatics director Marshall McKinney said. “As information continued to be given by health officials, changes at the SMSD Aquatic Center were made to follow the most current guidelines.”

The unpredictable nature of the pandemic caused a lot of the facility’s operations to be up in the air. 

“Due to facility closure, numerous practices, programs and events were canceled,” McKinney said. “Financially, all of these items bring in revenue that help offset the cost of operations at the facility. Along with lost revenue, we lost experiences at the facility. These experiences are what makes this facility special for SMSD student athletes as well as our community. The closure was not an easy decision, but the safety of the SMSD students and the community as a whole is a priority for both SMSD and the Johnson County Park and Recreation District (JCPRD).”  

Despite the SMSD Aquatic Center closing, JCPRD recovered financially through their other facilities. 

“We had to close in March, so we were out of work for a while,” staff member and NW senior Emily Alexander said. “JCPRD was still making money because all of our staff worked at the Shawnee Mission Park beach and marina. We had a record breaking year at the marina this year, financially. JCPRD-wise, we didn’t really take any deficit because we had our other facilities to run.”

The consequences of the facility’s finances caused many staff members to lose their jobs throughout the closure period. With the aquatic center reopening, they must find new staff members to fill the openings. 

“With closure of our facility, we made the tough decision to furlough staff throughout the Johnson County Park and Recreation District,” McKinney said. “This furlough included all part-time staff that work at the Shawnee Mission School District Aquatic Center. As we began the process of reopening, staff were trained on all new policies and procedures that were a result of COVID-19, and we were pleased to welcome our full staff back with the reopening of the facility. Our staff continue to support each other and have a family mentality that we are in this together to make a special place for all to visit.”

Alexander remained on the staff over the course of the pandemic and saw her co-workers come and go. 

“I started in November 2019,” Alexander said. “There were two or three people when I first started, our whole staff has changed. This summer, we had just gotten so many more people and a lot of the old people left… we were still understaffed.”

The SMSD Aquatic Center is now open, but many rules and guidelines are in place to ensure the safety of visitors. The full reopening plan can be found on www.jcprd.com

“There are just a lot less people in the building this year,” Alexander said. “Last year, we were super packed. When we had meets, it’d be a big thing because, for Blazers meets for example, a club swim team, we would have hundreds of people from all over. Now this year, our meets are much more low-key and mellow. We also do a lot more cleaning. Every hour, whether I’m working front desk or lifeguarding, I’m always cleaning something when I’m on break. We have SMSD janitors that do cleaning, but we do a lot of it ourselves to make sure everything is good.”

With these guidelines in place, the SMSD Aquatic Center’s staff hopes to continue to provide a fun, welcoming environment for its visitors.  

“These guidelines include limited number of swimmers per lane, restricted use of amenities including changing areas and showers and changing the flow of traffic within the facility,” McKinney said. “We ask all patrons that enter the facility to answer screening questions prior to entering. Changes have been made to day-to-day operations, but everyone that enters the facility does a great job adhering to these new guidelines and understand we are all in it together to keep this facility a safe place to recreate and enjoy positive experiences.”