Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. They have quickly become essential responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the world. With schools in Ontario undergoing major transformations to provide safe in-class as well as on-line instruction, local active school travel (AST) practitioners have also had to adapt and rise to new challenges.
At Student Transportation Services of Waterloo Region (STSWR), a new “Drive to 5” campaign has been rolled out in response to more parents driving their children to school. “We developed maps to help people find legal parking spaces at a five-minute walking distance from schools. Visual modes of communication like this help people from different linguistic backgrounds who are a part of our community,” says School Travel Planning Supervisor Leslie Maxwell. STSWR also worked with local biking advocacy group CycleWR to promote AST via a virtual panel discussion with parents, route planning, and socially-distanced outdoor workshops.
For Natalie Stephenson, AST Facilitator at GreenUp in Peterborough, COVID has required a change in approach to lighten the load on schools. “We have started to highlight options like GreenUP and B!KE’s Pedal Power From Home cycling education program,” she says. “Online programs like this have long-term advantages including the potential to reach more students than we can possibly manage in person.”
In Toronto, practitioners have shifted their focus to put more emphasis on the safety aspects of walking and wheeling to school. This change in priority has come to be of importance as many schools have noticed an increased interest in walking as it promotes more physical distancing. “Some of the schools have opened up more entrances to facilitate physical distancing. So, we are reworking our pickup and drop off maps so that parents and students can plan safe routes to school,” says Isooda Niroomand, STP Facilitator for the Toronto Catholic School Board.
But as the adage goes, there is a bright side to everything. Laura Zeglen, School Traffic Management Facilitator for the Toronto District School Board, suggests that the new online format for many AST events might have a positive result. “I think hosting the STP committees online has created the potential for more inclusivity as parents can participate from wherever they are, without having to travel to the meeting venue or compromising on child care.”
Overall, AST teams across Ontario have shown great commitment and creativity to adapt their programs to the challenges of ‘the new normal’.