The COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity to get more kids to school by foot, scooter or bike instead of bus or car, sustainable transportation advocates say.
"There is huge potential here to shift a long trend of driving our kids to school," said Jen Stelzer, manager of community sustainability programs at EnviroCentre.
"In Ottawa specifically, we definitely have a very significant part of our population continuing to work from home with flexible work hours, which means that maybe we do have a little bit more flexibility and time in the morning to spend walking or biking with our kid to school."
Earlier this week, about 200 children and staff with Ottawa's French Catholic school board were told to self-isolate after potentially coming into contact with COVID-19 aboard school buses. The same day, Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam encouraged families who are able to consider other ways of getting to school.
"Obviously, there are alternatives to busing, so you can try those and keep as active as you can," Tam said Tuesday.
Vicky Kyriaco, general manager of the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority [OSTA], said her organization, which oversees school bus transit for both the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB), is continuing to encourage kids to think about other ways to get to school.
OSTA said Wednesday it expects delays and cancellations of school buses this fall as it works to hire enough drivers and stabilize routes.
This is the seventh fall OSTA has provided "walking school buses," where about 200 kids on 13 routes walk to school together in guided groups, and Kyriaco said there's an appetite for more.
"We've got some walking school bus routes where we need a combination of leaders and volunteers to actually increase the capacity of students that we can actually lead to school," she said.
OSTA also helps facilitate "walk or roll" meet-ups where kids can join up with other students walking to school.
"The more volunteers that we can engage in this and the more that we can re-culture communities to actually adopt active transportation as the primary mode of transportation, that's really our end goal," said Kyriaco.
This year, OSTA is also stepping up its efforts to discourage the crush of cars around schools at pick-up and drop-off times. The traffic jams can be unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists, and the crowds outside schools elevate the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
OSTA has joined with the EnviroCentre to create maps for every elementary school in the OCDSB and OCSB that show parents where they can park far enough from their child's school that they still have a five- to 10-minute walk to the door. The maps are available on the OSTA's website.
"Little kids — that's where we get those habits formed so we really encourage walking and biking to school because that's where you learn those lifelong habits," said Stelzer.
Even such small changes in habit can have a notable impact on emissions over a long period of time, Stelzer said — and walking or biking has the added benefit of giving kids one-on-one time with their families.
"I did that with my son for a very long time, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. It is this one time where you have this lovely connection: you meet your neighbours, you discover your community and you're also teaching your kids how to get around a city."