Many districts are planning to start the year with a hybrid learning model, breaking students up into different cohorts with alternating schedules in order to have fewer students in the building at one time. Some districts are approaching the return to school with staggered days, and others are approaching it with staggered times of day. Both of these scenarios have the potential to impact students’ and families’ abilities to get to/from school easily and safely, as well as affect traffic around schools.
Safe Routes to School programs are uniquely positioned to support families returning to a hybrid model, since staggered schedules may present new transportation challenges for caregivers who work or who have multiple students on different schedules. The recommendations below outline how Safe Routes to School partners can play a role in connecting families and community members with each other to help students get to and from school in this environment.
Guiding recommendation: Returning to school in the hybrid scenario is new for everyone: students, families, teachers, school administrators. Take time to connect with members of your community to hear about how the experience is going for them. Determine whether there are ways you can shift or adjust your programming based on what they say they need or want.
Reach out to families in your school community to identify what would help them get their kids to/from school in the staggered scheduling environment. Connect families whose kids may be able to walk/bike to school together.
Host Zoom calls for families and caregivers to ask questions about walking/biking to school. Connect families that are accustomed to walking and biking with families that are new to it.
Crossing guards are essential partners in Safe Routes to School programs. Keep them engaged and active in Safe Routes to School efforts through self-paced learning opportunities. Many communities have a difficult time recruiting and retaining crossing guards, so it would be worthwhile to figure out how to keep them on the payroll. Identify additional tasks and responsibilities for crossing guards to keep them involved, such as conducting walk audits.
Use targeted outreach to engage parents and caregivers who don’t usually jump to leadership or volunteer opportunities for a variety of reasons. Work with school community liaisons or engagement specialists to reach out to low-income families, Black and Indigenous families, and families of color. Keep engagement asks specific, bearing in mind not to overburden families with coordinating programs.
Parents and caregivers may be back at work and unable to support the staggered schedules and/or may have lost their job due to shutdowns. Parents from more affluent families may be able to hire help, drive their kids, or form pods with other families.
Innovation in Action: In Austin, Texas, the city’s Safe Routes to School program employs more than 200 crossing guards. During school closures, they offered self-paced learning opportunities in the form of podcasts, webinars and reading material, so that crossing guards could continue their regular working hours. The Safe Routes to School Program staff met with crossing guards individually to understand individual technology and language capabilities, so that learning options were inclusive of everyone’s needs. Not only were crossing guards able to engage with continued learning and professional development on their own time, they were able to connect with other crossing guards and broaden their understanding of how significant their role is to the greater Safe Routes movement.
Text messaging is a widely accessible tool, while internet applications might not be. Start a group text with parents to coordinate walking school buses, bike trains and share information. For online engagement, explore your local Facebook and NextDoor groups to connect with parent volunteers and advocates, and to organize trainings and bike swaps. TikTok is also a great application for engaging students with fun, interesting video programming.
Planning for the long term
Identify organizations and groups outside of police departments with positive, existing relationships with schools, and come up with creative strategies to partner and improve engagement through collective impact. Work with youth, families, teachers, and community partners to brainstorm solutions for culturally-informed programming that meets local needs.
Foster connection, communication and relationships among parents and caregivers who participate in walking programs. Use existing applications or develop contact lists so that families can more easily contact each other, particularly if they need help transporting kids to school.
Utilize a number of outreach methods to reach students and families, including: text messaging, teleparent, social media, NextDoor, paid advertising, culturally-centered radio channels, and local TV.
Partner with local community groups such as churches, recreation centers, and boys & girls clubs. Be an ally, volunteer, offer bike repairs, and show up for other organizations' priority concerns.
Translate communications and materials into languages spoken and commonly used in your community. If your community has limited programming options at this time, take this opportunity to translate and distribute materials.
Host a bike swap program to provide bikes to people who need them most. Engage with your local bike shop to assess bikes, then host a swap using a lottery system where donors could trade for a different bike, and those without a bike could choose from what is available.
Parents and caregivers who have lost jobs or have returned to work may face additional challenges in supporting their kids’ attendance at school.
The first day of Safe Routes to School programming should not be the first time a community meets or sees practitioners. Build in time to get to know the community and open up communication about their history and assets/resources that have worked, and build trust before entering. This is particularly important for practitioners who live or identify outside of a specific community.
Remember that some students and families may have pre-existing conditions that place them at a higher risk of complications if they contract COVID-19. In encouraging walking and biking, be aware that this may be a reason that families or caregivers are driving their students, and don’t force people to disclose personal health information to justify why they are driving.
Planning for the long term
Prioritize engaging with Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color. Center Black lives and voices, and offer culturally-sensitive, trauma-informed programming. Stick through difficult conversations and promote tools to help the community build resilience and heal.
Stay connected to the Safe Routes Partnership's blog for reflections on how Safe Routes efforts can support Black Lives, racial justice, and equitable access in your community.
Guiding recommendation: To prevent increased traffic and potential conflicts between students and cars, use engineering treatments to make streets on the way to and around schools safe and appealing for kids walking and bicycling. In the broader community, focus infrastructure improvements in neighborhoods with the least amount of green/open space and slow, safe streets for walking, biking, and physical activity so that kids and community members can be physically active while staying home.
Conduct walk audits virtually, independently, or in small groups following local physical distancing and safety requirements.
Work with your school and district to ensure there are clear places for students to wait at appropriate distances before entering the school if temperature and other symptom checks are in place.
Consider modifying driving access to schools to accommodate more space for students to wait at appropriate distances before entering schools and/or create physical separation between where cars are driving and where students are waiting to enter school.
Use visual cues painted or taped on the ground to indicate which travel mode is appropriate in which space.
Experiment with tactical urbanism projects and pop-ups to make changes, especially while there may be less car traffic in your community. Activate crosswalks and sidewalks with creative artwork, work on temporary or permanent infrastructure installations and incorporate positive health and safety messaging.
Share the NACTO Recovery Streets School Streets guide with your school transportation agency and/or department of public works.
Focus on low-cost, fixable changes like installing signage related to air quality. With potential for increased driving to and from school, consider programs like the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Air Quality Flag Program, which encourages schools to raise a colored flag based on how clean or dirty the air is for the day using Air Quality Index colors.
Consider physical distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and adhere to local health guidelines when completing in-person audits.
Include students and families in developing audit materials and completing walk audits in your community to ensure user friendliness and maximum engagement.
Prioritize infrastructure projects that improve safety in neighborhoods and in communities most adversely impacted by the virus, focusing on Black, Indigenous, people of color, and low-income neighborhoods and communities.
Innovation in Action: In Metro-Atlanta, Georgia Commute Schools has an anti-idling initiative that encourages parents to reduce idling in the car-rider line. In partnership with the EPA, they provide Air Quality index flags and two anti-idling signs to schools as an effort to improve air quality during arrival and dismissal periods. Schools hold what are called “Idle-Free” days, which are sometimes held on the same day as Walk to School Days to educate drivers on the importance of turning their engines off.
Guiding recommendation: Help avoid the return to driving by promoting walking and biking as a safe, fun, and convenient daily activity whether kids are traveling to school or learning remotely.
Promote bike trains as a naturally physically distant travel mode for days students are attending school in-person.
Promote at-home ideas for staying physically active and engaging with active transportation options. Offer a curated list and simple resources for parents (such as three choices each week instead of exhaustive lists) with ideas for setting family health and wellness goals.
Coordinate Walking School Buses among students attending school at the same time. Come up with student cohort names/logos to make them more fun and help with organization (similar to sports team names/logos/mascots).
Share walking/biking activities that have both in-person and remote options available.
For Walk to School Day in October, encourage both in-person and remote opportunities for participation.
If your community has closed streets or slowed traffic to create more room for people to walk and bike at appropriate distances, promote routes to school that use those streets.
Set up a remote Park-N-Walk to promote physical activity for kids who may live too far to walk/bike the whole way to school, but still wish to participate. This can also help alleviate increased traffic around the school.
Partner with local businesses who have been impacted by COVID-19-related closures to participate in a scavenger hunt where students and families walk & bike to local businesses to earn prizes. Purchase gift cards or merchandise from these local shops to offer as rewards for completing the challenge.
Abide by local health regulations regarding PPE and physical distancing when planning Walk to School Day, walking school buses, and bike trains.
Plan events that allow for a variety of in-person, remote, and hybrid participation so that students and families with different needs and comfort can still participate.
It is likely that staff and volunteers will have reduced capacity or ability to support program implementation, either due to restrictions on people on campus or concerns about personal health and safety.
Take a “two-generation” approach, such as “Safe Routes for All” with programming and options for the whole family.
Use challenges that allow for a variety of in-person, remote, and hybrid participation so that students and families with different needs and comfort can still participate.
Safe Routes to School Toolkit by EZ Ride in New Jersey includes guidance on how to adjust school travel modes to comply with CDC guidance.
Planning for the long term
Guiding recommendation: Teach kids, families, and caregivers how to walk and bike to school and around their communities while abiding by health and safety precautions as well as local guidance or regulations related to COVID-19.
Host bike rodeos, helmet fittings, and other school safety education more frequently to enable small, socially distant participation among students.
Promote walking and biking as independent, healthy, physically distant ways for students to get to school.
Teach youth how to use transit maps, read schedules, put their bicycles on the bus rack, etc. In communities with transit, it can be a valuable resource for families with different schedules and shifting needs throughout the pandemic.
If you have a contract to provide Safe Routes to School educational programming, reach out to your grant administrator to request a change to your scope of work. Try not to reinvent the wheel with materials and content that have already been developed, and instead focus on creative ways of engaging students remotely. You may wish to encourage students to create content that resonates with them.
Host bike helmet giveaways during “open street” hours. This could take place during regular street closures for outdoor dining, walking and biking, food distribution services, farmer’s markets, etc.
Design, build, and install a pop-up traffic garden that students and families can visit remotely on their own time.
Families with more than one child may find themselves sending kids to school on different days or with staggered arrival and dismissal times. Families may need to employ various travel modes for their kids.
Adhere to local health guidance regarding shared equipment like bike racks, bikes, and bike helmets if conducting in-person bike education.
Activities should reflect the feedback received during Evaluation & Engagement efforts. Community input should inform what SRTS programs look like through COVID changes.
Bike Safety Presentations and Worksheets for ages 5-9, 10+ in English, Spanish, and Hindi from EZ Ride (Haitian Creole and Pedestrian Safety coming soon!)
Develop a Safe Routes to School guide for parents and identify ways they can get involved with and support your local program. Use these resources on volunteer recruitment and management to get started and this resource for parent champions.
Planning for the long term
Advocate for Safe Routes to School efforts and reinforce the relevance of how physical activity boosts mental health and improves immune response toward chronic and infectious diseases.
Guiding recommendation: Connect with members of your community to understand transportation needs and preferences both related to the part-time return to school and the pandemic more generally. Assess how the programming and infrastructure your program is working to support kids' safe travel to school can also support community members to meet essential needs.
Survey, talk with and listen to youth, parents, caregivers, teachers, and other partners to identify how the changes to school attendance days/times help or hurt peoples’ ability to get around and meet essential needs. Use Evaluation to inform programming and funding opportunities.
Conduct quick surveys of students/families about their transportation challenges related to the hybrid return to school. Adjust programming based upon the responses you receive.
Evaluate whether the hybrid return to school increases traffic volume and speeds around schools at certain times of day.
Make a prioritization list of communities most in need and try to direct resources to those communities first.
Collaborate with local partners and agencies who provide essential needs and services. Mutual aid efforts and food distribution centers could be opportunities to give away bike helmets, educational materials, bike swaps, etc.
If your community has already undertaken Open Streets, Play Streets, Slow Streets, or any other innovative approaches to making more public space available for people to be outside, assess what neighborhoods these are available in. Support community members to self-determine whether something like this is desired and if so, the approach to increasing public space and safe opportunities for recreation and travel that would be most beneficial to them and their neighborhood.
Take a walk or ride around your community and take note of infrastructure challenges. Consider using/imagining a transportation mode you don't usually take—for example, if you usually drive to the grocery store/park/school, what would this trip look like if you had to walk? Bike? Take transit?
Some districts are approaching the return to school with staggered days, and others are approaching it with staggered times of day. Both of these scenarios have the potential to impact students’ and families’ abilities to get to and from school easily and safely as well as affect traffic around schools.
Communities everywhere have seen an uptick in walking, biking, and outdoor play, and the disparities in access to safe, open spaces have been magnified.
Many cities are seeing increased speeding due to low traffic volumes, resulting in pedestrian deaths. Determine whether this is happening in your community.
Host an Instagram contest where students and community members can showcase how they are getting around their communities and staying physically active during hybrid learning.
Invite students and community members to participate in a remote Photovoice project taking photos of built environment features that either help or hinder them from being physically active during hybrid learning.
Planning for the long term
- Revise or create a new Safe Routes to School action plan with programming strategies for COVID-19. If you need an idea for where to get started on Safe Routes to School action planning, check out the action plans for several California communities here (midway down the page).