Terrance Brobst wraps his arm around friend Jackson Fasig as they walk out of Nelson Elementary School on Oct. 1. Walking to school together is one of the pair’s favorite parts of their mornings. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
Terrance Brobst wraps his arm around friend Jackson Fasig as they walk out of Nelson Elementary School on Oct. 1. Walking to school together is one of the pair’s favorite parts of their mornings. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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It’s not every day that fifth graders Terrance Brobst and Jackson Fasig get to walk to school together, but the days they do are some of their favorites.

It’s one of the things they missed most when they were stuck at home during the pandemic’s remote learning stages.

“We get to walk, talk with our friends,” Jackson said.

At Nelson Elementary School, where more than half of the students already walk to school, National Walk to School Day on Wednesday will look much like any other day. 

Sherrie Frazey, principal of the Haysville school, will be out on her bike, and teachers will review walking and biking safety precautions with their students, including how to safely cross streets and put on bicycle pads and helmets.

Frazey said it’s important for the school to continue with the tradition of National Walk to School Day since such a large number of students walk or bike anyway.

“This was one thing I didn’t want COVID to interrupt,” she said.

The lost art of walking to school

The first National Walk to School Day began in 1997 as a way to help schools build awareness of walkability needs in their communities.

COVID-19 put a pause on National Walk to School Day activities at many schools in 2020, when only three Kansas schools registered events through the national organization. More than 30 schools had registered events ahead of the 2021 National Walk to School Day, compared to more than 60 in previous years.

But even beyond COVID-19’s disruption, local interest in walking to school has been waning in recent years, said Jane Byrnes, a registered dietitian who has lobbied for school walkability improvements in Wichita.

One of the last comprehensive studies on walking to school — a 2011 report from the National Center for Safe Routes to School — found that while nearly half of all U.S. kindergarten through eighth grade students walked to school in 1969, only about one in eight students did in 2009. Almost 90% of kids who lived less than a mile from their school walked or biked to school in 1969, compared to just 35% in 2009.

Since that study, the number of students walking or biking to school has likely continued to decrease, said Jenny Kramer, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

That’s in part driven by schools in recent decades being built on cheap land on the outskirts of cities and towns — where highways might come between schools and the neighborhoods they serve, or where sidewalks might not be as common.

“Culturally, we’ve changed a lot in terms of walking and biking,” Kramer said. “Especially if there aren’t sidewalks and parents are hesitant to let their children walk in the street like they might have done when they were kids.”

At Nelson Elementary, the neighborhood school saw a shift in its traffic patterns a decade ago when the city installed a walking trail around the community. The trail remains a major reason why more than half of the school’s children walk or bike to school every day, Frazey said.

Why walk to school?

For a lot of parents, driving their children to school might be a matter of convenience, but walking doesn’t have to be inconvenient, Byrnes said. One of the main reasons childhood obesity has gone up so much in the past few decades is that children are now driven to most places.

“They don’t walk anywhere because their parents perceive it as not being safe, or that it takes too much time. But it’s so healthy, not just physically but mentally,” she said.

Besides health, trusting children to get to school by themselves gives them confidence in learning how to navigate their neighborhoods, Byrnes added. If more children walk to school, it could mean less traffic on the road during peak commute times, which also has the added benefit of less pollution, Byrnes said.

But beyond any economic considerations, walking to school is an enjoyable experience, Frazey said.

“The kids love it,” she said. “They get to have fellowship with their friends as they’re walking to and from school, and they get to socialize. And while kids might not be thinking about the movement part, research shows that the more you have kids up and moving in the morning, the better learners they are.”

Do you walk to school? Have you noticed any issues around schools, like missing crosswalks, poor sidewalk routes or dangerous traffic? Education reporter Rafael Garcia would love to hear from you for a future story on barriers that keep families from walking to school. Contact him at rafael@thebeacon.media.

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Garcia is an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon. He is a Report for America corps member.