Originally published Nov. 15, 2021 by WGBH 89.7.
By Meg Woolhouse
It’s a sight you don’t see too often: a bunch of elementary school kids walking down a busy street on their way to school. But that’s what’s happening every school day in Framingham, where physical education teacher Kelsey Duffy leads the way through parking lots, apartment complexes and busy roadways, gathering students behind her like she’s leading a conga line.
Duffy says it is a way to reduce absenteeism among kids when buses fail to deliver, as well as a way to engage kids who may have become a little too comfortable learning at home in the pandemic. She and the kids are hoofing it to Harmony Grove Elementary School on what's known as a “walking school bus,” a way to get kids to school together — on foot, without an actual bus.
More United States schools are looking at walking buses as a way to get kids to school amid the pandemic and a national shortage of bus drivers. Many districts around the country have been forced to lengthen the distance students are allowed to walk to school as the capacity to bus students shrinks. And many schools have been overrun by parents dropping off or picking up their kids by car, idling for long periods and causing traffic congestion.
Philip Tomporowski, a University of Georgia experimental psychologist who is an expert on movement and comprehension, says walking makes sense in the pandemic and beyond because movement also boosts student learning at school.
“I just want to applaud this notion of having the walking bus or biking trails for children because it provides an opportunity for them to understand how the world works in a more naturalistic fashion,” he said.
Some may say it’s too cold to walk to school this time of year. But since the approach started more than a half century ago in Japan, it has spread around the world and is particularly popular in Wisconsin and Sweden — two places not known for their warm climates.
Duffy, the PE teacher, said walking with the kids is “another way I can be a role model.” She meets with two other teachers from Harmony Grove Elementary and they set off on their morning rounds holding yardsticks with a laminated neon green sign reading "walking school bus” in the air so kids can spot them.
States have been promoting walking school buses since 2005 with more than $1 billion in federal transportation grants. But the pandemic and the school bus driver shortage have given the idea new urgency. The Safe Routes Partnership, a Virginia nonprofit that advocated for the funding, says inquiries have surged and new walking buses are popping up nationwide, although no comprehensive data exist. In Boston, Mayor-elect Michelle Wu campaigned on an education plan that included walking buses.
To Tomporowski, it's a no-brainer. Decades of data show that movement can boost student learning. As many schools reduce recess and playtime to focus on testing, ideas like the walking bus are taking on new importance.
“The idea of having a teacher that's there, not necessarily telling them to keep a march pace, but sort of keep control and having the children talk to one another ... they'll remember that much more than sitting down and trying to memorize a list of test items," he said. "The data are pretty clear on that.”
Walking to school is also extremely low-tech, although apps exist that schools can use to ensure students make it to the classroom safely. Critics have argued that it is absurd to fund something as simple as walking to school, but advocates argue that busing has become the rule — not the exception — over the years. According to a 2016 analysis published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 6 percent of elementary school students and 11% of middle schoolers walk or ride a bike to school. The parents surveyed said that was mainly because it was too far to walk.
Cass Isidro, executive director of the Safe Routes Partnership, said she hopes more communities will consider walking bus programs as a result of the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act of 2021 that's currently awaiting President Joe Biden's signature. The bill includes historic funding levels for connected streets, sidewalks, bike lanes and Safe Routes to School programs.
“I think there's momentum building,” Isidro said. “We could be really at a moment in time where we turn the corner on this a little bit, and that we start looking to walking and biking as the first solution for those who live within the proximity of the school."
In many neighborhoods, walking to school is not safe or easy, particularly in places where infrastructure has been neglected, sometimes for decades. Charles T. Brown, founder of Equitable Cities, an urban planning and public policy firm based in Somerset, New Jersey, said many disadvantaged neighborhoods often don't have the street lighting, sidewalks, bike lanes, or proximity to schools to help ensure that a walking school bus can happen safely.
The Build Back Better Act being debated in Congress also includes Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants. Brown said that proposed funding can help ensure walking school buses don't reinforce inequities by allowing privileged neighborhoods to get children to school while others get left behind.
“We need policy systems and environmental changes to ensure that if walking school buses and walk into school is to be the thing that we promote — which I do — that we do it by centering the importance of racial equity and inclusion, particularly for persons with disabilities,” he said.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has been offering guidance to communities about walking bus routes more than a decade, in addition to hosting “Walk to School” days in communities across the state. Diane Hanson, who runs the state program, says finding adult volunteers to "drive" the walking bus is one of the biggest challenges for schools looking to participate, but some districts are getting desperate for transportation alternatives.
Some have been overwhelmed by cars clogging the areas in and around entrances at student drop-off and pickup times. Parents began driving their kids to school individually during the pandemic, a trend that has continued to overwhelm some neighborhoods with car congestion and exhaust during bus driver shortages.
“We started getting the calls and the panicked emails, from the principals from the district saying help, you know, we need to find a solution to this,” Hanson said.
Boston has dabbled in the walking approach but still budgets more than $125 million a year to pay for bus transportation. Sam Balto, a former Boston gym teacher who has gained a reputation as an expert in how to set up walking school bus systems, said paying adults to walk with the children would help.
Balto says the current system is costly and bus-centric. He says he's seen firsthand how a student who qualifies for a school bus gets a pass, a phone app, a monitor on the bus ride and security to ensure the ride gets to its destination safety.
"What does a walker get?" he asked rhetorically. “You get Boston 311 and calling 911."
At Harmony Grove in Framingham, the school doesn't pay anyone to walk with the children. That problem was solved — as many school problems are — by caring teachers.
Since summer school, Duffy and fellow teachers Peggy Olegario and Juliana Kessler have volunteered their time each morning to collect dozens of students by foot. They fan out along streets with cracked sidewalks holding yardsticks with laminated "walking school bus" signs taped to the top.
Kids still complain that it’s too cold or too rainy to walk, Duffy said. But the Worcester native, who walked to school when she was a kid, isn’t taking excuses. She even keeps a closet of coats, hats and mittens for kids who need them.
“This is a family,” she said of the school. “You can't raise kids on your own. And we are just those extra people who love them.”