Back to School: Bus, Bike and Car Safety During COVID-19

As educators and children return to school during COVID-19, there are new anxiety-inducing concerns facing families. While much of the discussion has focused on what happens inside school, it’s important to consider safety precautions when traveling to and from school.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a great article addressing Return to School During COVID-19 focused on physical distancing, wearing masks, handwashing and cleaning surfaces, and temperature checks, but below are some new, and some more familiar, safety tips for children getting to and from school this year. 

Walking or biking

As school transportation poses new and different safety, staffing and scheduling considerations during COVID-19, walking or biking can be part of the solution to school re-opening challenges. Walking or biking is also a great way for children to get exercise and develop a sense of independence.  

The AAP cautions that children usually aren’t ready to start walking to school without an adult until about fifth grade, or around age 10. Being a safe pedestrian includes walking on the sidewalk (if one is available) or facing traffic. Use crosswalks when available, looking both ways (left, right, and left again) and making eye contact with drivers before crossing.   

Safe biking includes riding with traffic in a single file, following traffic laws such as stopping at stop signs and red lights and wearing a properly fitted bike helmet. Whether biking or walking, everyone should avoid distractions and choose brightly colored clothing and backpacks, ideally with reflective materials as the days get shorter.  

Doing a few “trial runs” to school with your child is a good idea. That way, you can reinforce the safe practices and identify the safest route. 

Taking the bus

Physical distancing guidelines and potential schedule changes make hurried mornings even more challenging. Get children to the bus stop a little ahead of pick up time to promote a safe, masked and mindful entrance to the bus. Instruct children to wait for the bus to stop before moving to get on or off, and to cross at least ten feet in front of the bus only after the driver has signaled that it is safe.  

Driving your children

Drop off and pick up will require additional planning. Parents may not be allowed to come into the school building, and it’s likely that temperature screening will be occurring. If school protocols allow, arriving a little early to avoid feeling rushed or confused will help keep everyone on task and safe. Be alert to signs, as there may be times when traffic is one-way. Never pass a school bus in either direction while the flashing red signal lights are on, even in the schoolyard.  

In Vermont, all children up to 8 years old must ride in an approved child restraint and all children ages 8 to 18 must ride in an approved child restraint or safety belt system.  

In New York, children must be in a child restraint until they are 4 years old (rear-facing until 2) and using a restraint or booster seat until age 8. Children under the age of 16 must wear seat belts when they are in the front seat or the back seat. Beyond our state laws, many children will need a booster seat beyond 8 years old to help the seat belt fit them correctly. And of course, seat belts save lives and make good safety sense for everyone.  

Teen drivers

Many school reopening plans have teens spending less time in school and more time engaged in remote learning. Especially if they are not driving as much, make sure they gain experience. Practice driving with them every week, as soon as they have their permit and after they get their license. Establish rules about who can ride with them and when they can drive, even after they are past the restrictions of a Graduated or Junior Driver’s License. Set clear expectations about never using a cell phone while driving, always wearing a seat belt, following speed limits, and never driving under the influence.  

Whether you are helping your child prepare for new and different situations or just reinforcing established safety-related behaviors, it is important to be a good role model. Wear your mask, bike helmet and seat belt. Put down the cell phone, and drive with the same safety considerations you expect from your teen driver or future drivers in your household. Studies show that children learn by example. Be a good example!  

Maureen Johnson, CSP, CPST-I, is a Child Passenger Safety Specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center. 

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