How to Build Safe Routes to School During COVID-19

Outdoor transportation should be one of the safest ways to get to school this fall — but we need to make some design and policy changes first.

Source: Creative commons
Source: Creative commons

School districts should urge their cities to bar cars from certain streets and take some space away from drivers as part of a comprehensive strategy to get children safely to school during COVID-19, a leading national organization recommends.

The National Center for Safe Routes to School report, Planning Considerations for Walking and Rolling to School in Fall 2020, highlights dozens of strategies for making the path to school safe for the 20 percent of U.S. students who choose or rely on active transportation.

The group drafted the document in response to concerns expressed by state and local leaders, who recognized that walking, biking and assistive mobility devices could become particularly essential modes of student transportation during COVID-19 — especially if districts successfully follow CDC guidelines around other forms of school transportation, like running school buses at half capacity or less.

“The whole idea of a ‘safe’ route to school has a whole new meaning for parents now,” said Nancy Pullen-Seufert, the Center’s director. “They’re wondering, ‘How can I protect my child from COVID-19? What if I can help other families by giving up my kid’s seat on the bus so it’s a little less crowded?’ Put it all together, and we’re potentially going to have a lot of new families walking to school who have never done it before.”

Of course, the Center’s considerations don’t just aim to make active school transportation COVID-safe. They also build on the organization’s longer-standing mission of protecting kids from traffic violence — the other pandemic that has long been a leading cause of death among school-aged children. Engaging cities to reallocate driving lanes to extend sidewalks, closing streets in front of schools during drop-off hours, and adding markings every six feet to encourage social distancing on popular routes are all highlighted as possible design interventions communities might consider — as are more unconventional strategies, like the “three block challenge” park-and-walk model or the walking school bus.

“There are students whose parents are so busy, there’s really no way they’ll be able to take time out of their day to walk with their students, no matter how good the street infrastructure is,” said Pullen-Seufert. “So we want communities to explore the possibility of organizing small groups of neighbors to walk together. COVID-19 is prompting lots of families to do a bit of a reset; there’s an opportunity for us to come together and help one another rethink our travel patterns.”

Picture these students in masks, maybe with six-foot strings between them, and it's not hard to imagine how the Walking School Bus concept could be adapted for the age of COVID-19. Source: Green Schools via Creative Commons
Picture these students in masks, maybe with six-foot strings between them, and it’s not hard to imagine how the Walking School Bus concept could be adapted for the age of COVID-19. Photo: Green Schools via Creative Commons

Of course, working with the community to find the unique combination of strategies that will work for them is key to creating safe routes to school that are equitable, too — as is finding the messaging that will best speak to those communities’  unique priorities, once it comes time to publicize the changes. The National Center for Safe Routes to School also gave districts some of the the tools they need to encourage families to walk their kids to schools, including arguments that emphasize parents’ convenience (“Skip the drop off line!”), student well being (“the trip to school can be a chance for a kid to “be a kid” in a time with a lot of change and new structure”), and community altruism (“Leave space on the school bus for those who need it more.”)

The altruism angle may be particularly compelling — especially when compared to the expected carpocalypse if American families don’t find a way to embrace active school transportation soon. In a normal year, over 65 million children enroll in K-12 schools in the US  — and because roughly 54 percent of kiddos are chauffeured by a caregiver, a stunning 10 to 14 percent of morning rush hour traffic is attributable to school transportation alone.

But even if staggered scheduling, home schooling, and other decentralized education models become popular, experts fear that we could still be in for an avalanche of new drivers — because even a minor shift away from biking, walking, and bussing could unleash millions of new l0w-occupancy vehicles on our streets.

“The fact is, cities are going to have congestion issues if parents feel they have no choice but to put their kids in the back of the car,” Pullen-Seufert added.

But if every city in America engaged with the group’s planning considerations — especially as the Center revises the dynamic document in response to changes in our public health landscape, as it’s pledged to do — it could help us avoid hitting the “fundamental geometrical limit” of cars on our rush hour roadways, as San Francisco transit leader Jeff Tumlin elegantly put it. And it could also help students get the exercise they need in an era when playgrounds and high-contact sports are still unsafe.

“The CDC recommends that kids get 60 minutes of physical activity every day, and that didn’t change just because pandemic shut down public spaces,” said Sam Balto, a physical education teacher in north Portland, Ore., who was also one of the reviewers on the document. “Children are happier when they get more physical activity. They learn better. They have better relationships with their peers. They get in trouble less at school. They get sick less. They live longer. … And if we create livable, playful communities, science shows us that whole families are happier. We have to slow things down to create more local space where families can relax, where you don’t need money to provide something special for your child. It’s so critical.”

Safe Routes to School has long emphasized these myriad benefits of an active school commute, but it’s even more important during the era of COVID-19. As the pandemic makes recess a thing of the past — if children ever got it in the first place — while simultaneously accelerating wealth inequality, a semi-daily walk to school may be the only daily exercise kids can get.

“I work in a community with predominantly children of color from lower-income families, and I can tell you for sure that not all children have access to accessible, free open space,” says Balto. “It’s really important for me, as a teacher, to be finding creative ways to engage my students to be more physical active however they can — and Safe Routes to School can be part of that.”

But replacing P.E. with a semi-daily ride on the walking school bus isn’t free. Many of the Center’s considerations require at least some financial or volunteer resources, whether it’s installing brand new bike racks or simply calling local business owners to get their permission to serve as remote drop-off locations for parents who want to park there and walk their kids the rest of the way. And Pullen-Seufert emphasizes that future considerations that crop up as the pandemic evolves might cost even more money and time.

“Everybody is building a plane as we’re flying it,” she said. “School districts are releasing their transportation guidance, and some of them are turning right around a few days later and saying, okay, new plan! That’s why encouraging funding at the federal level, and at the state and local level, is so important. Right now there’s a real siloing between planning for school travel and planning for travel for everyone else, and that has to end — because when we plan our streets with kids at the center, we make everyone safer.”

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