What’s being done to keep pedestrians safe around schools?

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

How are D.C.-area jurisdictions keeping pedestrians safe around schools?

What it is: October is Pedestrian Safety month, which comes at the time of year when law enforcement officials say pedestrians are most at risk of getting struck by drivers.

For one, police in Prince William County, Virginia, say the risk increases during the fall and winter because the sun sets earlier, when there are still more drivers out and about. There’s also a greater chance of bad weather.

The risk isn’t exclusive to students, but thousands of them across the D.C. region walk to school every day.

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So, what’s being done to keep students who walk to and from school every day safe?

What it means: In some cases, it’s as simple as moving bus stops.

At the start of the school year in Fairfax County, Virginia, school board member Karl Frisch headed an effort to eliminate most of the 22 bus stops along Blake Lane — a road where two students from Oakton High School were killed in a crash on June 7.

Six stops remain on Blake Lane, but students wait for buses on side streets.

At this point, parents and residents seem pleased with the change.

Several Northern Virginia jurisdictions are also exploring ways to best utilize speed cameras in school zones.

Regional snapshot: In Prince William County, Virginia’s second-largest school system, Safe Routes to School Coordinator Rebecca Short told me the emphasis is on awareness.

For one, the county has several schools in the middle of neighborhoods, but Short said few people walk and they have full bus service. But according to county guidelines, anyone who lives within a mile of a walkable school is considered a walker. So, Short helped the county shift those buses to be used in “places where they were really highly needed.”

Keeping pedestrians around schools safe, Short said, is also as simple as altering where parents drop off and pick up their kids. Some parents pick students up off school property, leaving the kids to “run across the street to the school, not even anywhere near a crosswalk.”

Speed of traffic is a concern, Short said, because a police presence is effective, but it’s unrealistic to have officers all around a school all the time during drop off and dismissal.

Short said she has purchased bike racks for schools, and has a company that teaches about bike safety — things like how to cross railroad tracks and how to signal when turning.

In Fairfax County, city officials are planning to spend $100 million over six years focused on pedestrian improvement. About $5 million has been approved and will feature upgrades to some crosswalks and trails near schools. A finalized list is scheduled to be voted on next month.

County leaders are also working to create lists of projects for the city to consider. A spokesman for Board of Supervisors, Chairman Jeff McKay, told me the list will likely include a sidewalk from Hybla Valley Elementary to Huntley Meadows Park and upgrades to the Vale Road crossing near Flint Hill Elementary.

In D.C., this year’s budget adds 100 new crossing guards for schools that either don’t have them at all or don’t have enough of them. D.C.’s Safe Routes to School program also helps city leaders prioritize infrastructure improvements near schools, though the program only reviews a few schools each year.

Earlier this year, Maryland’s Safe Walk to School Act became law. The law tasks the state highway administration, in collaboration with local transportation agencies, with identifying safe routes to school for students who walk or bike that already exist, and analyzing opportunities to expand to them on state or county roads.

And in Arlington, Arlington Now reports that county board members are calling for quick traffic changes to the intersection where a driver fatally struck a woman earlier this month.

Talking points: Short, in Prince William County, said some incidents can be prevented simply by making parents and students aware of safest routes.

“Everybody wants to get there quickly,” Short said. “But the crosswalks and the crossing guards are there for a reason. That’s one of the biggest, especially for the bigger kids, because they’ll just cross where they want.”

By the numbers
Some data that caught my eye this week.

Recruitment update: School board members in Alexandria, Virginia, on Thursday night were briefed on the state of the school system’s vacancies.

The city has 48 instructional vacancies, 43 teacher openings, 34 instructional assistant openings and 13 bus driver vacancies, according to school board documents.

The city said it has had low attendance at recruitment fairs, fewer applicants in hard-to-fill areas and has noted the coronavirus remains a concern, notably in candidates interested in becoming substitute teachers.

What Scott’s Reading

  • Montgomery Co. teachers’ union files ‘unfair labor practice’ complaint over stymied negotiations [WTOP]
  • Youngkin on new transgender policies: ‘It’s the law’ [WTOP]
  • Virginia history learning standards delayed for 3rd time [WTOP]
  • Prince George’s County teacher receives Fulbright scholarship [WTOP] 
  • Prince William School Board passes collective bargaining rights [InsideNova]
  • P.E. teacher Jermar Rountree named 2023 D.C. Teacher of the Year [Washington Post]
  • Black, Hispanic students In Arlington Schools are disproportionately suspended: Report [DCist]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Tailgate time: It’s homecoming in College Park, Maryland — one of my favorite events of the year, bringing everyone from across the country back to the D.C. area. We’re slated to bring chicken sliders.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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