One thing can be counted on as students arrive at and leave school each day: traffic jams.
The Partnership for a Walkable America estimates only 10 percent of students walk to school – and among kids who live within a mile of school, only a quarter of them choose to walk.
Some students ride a bus, but the rest likely hitch a ride with mom or dad, leading to increased traffic in school parking lots and congestion on nearby roads.
But one day last October, the parking lots in front of two Sandpoint elementary schools were nearly empty. Instead of driving their children to school, many parents chose to walk their children to school to celebrate International Walk to School Day.
This year, even more schools in the Lake Pend Oreille School District will participate, along with Valley View Elementary School in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Beginning at 7:30 Wednesday morning, students will be joined by parents, teachers, community leaders and politicians as they walk to school.
Grandmother Molly O’Reilly, the volunteer organizer for Lake Pend Oreille schools, is a self-professed advocate of “walkability.”
“An astonishing number of kids walked,” O’Reilly said of last year’s event. “They really seemed to enjoy it. It was fun being with parents as well, standing outside looking at the absence of cars.”
O’Reilly walked to school when she was a little girl. She reminisces about her father walking her to school on the first day each year, just like his father had walked with him.
As she walked, she would daydream and take in the scenery.
“I think part of my love of gardening and nature comes from just that walking, at less than 2 mph and observing that incredible detail,” O’Reilly said last week. “I walked every day. I can remember being bundled up and waddling out the door headed for school.”
O’Reilly said as many as 1,500 students are expected to participate Wednesday from Farmin-Stidwell, Kootenai and Washington elementary schools, Sandpoint Middle School and Lake Pend Oreille Alternative School.
Several local businesses and community groups are sponsoring the event. Students will receive reflective safety tags for coats and backpacks, juice boxes and pedestrian safety training.
O’Reilly said she hopes the event inspires more children to walk to school – not only to take in the sights of the neighborhood but also to improve their health. Instead of driving, parents should walk to school with their children, O’Reilly suggests.
Sandpoint Mayor Ray Miller plans to participate in Walk to School Day for the second year in a row. Last year, he met Washington Elementary students on a street corner and walked half a mile to the school. This year, he plans to join students from Farmin-Stidwell Elementary.
Miller says he anticipates the walk will be a bit easier than it was when he was a child walking “uphill both ways through snow over my head.”
Snow in California?
“Maybe it was smog,” Miller joked.