Back-to-school safety is different this year, with many children returning to school after a year of learning at home.
Some students have gone months without traveling independently and may have forgotten even basic rules. There are also new practices to stay safe as the nation recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Safety experts say it’s a good time for parents to review with their children what to do and what to avoid.
“People have been so isolated,” says Dr. Oneith Cadiz, a pediatrician in the University of Miami Health System and director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Miami. “Simple things like pedestrian safety and bus safety rules are things you have not had to consider in a long time.”
How to Walk to School Safely
Safety experts say parents should walk the route to school with children in advance and make sure they have plenty of time to get there on the first day. Having extra time will prevent children from feeling rushed and taking unnecessary risks when crossing streets.
“For many children, it may have been a long time since they walked or biked to school, or had to catch the bus,” says Jodie Plumert, a University of Iowa psychology and brain sciences professor who conducts research on issues related to childhood safety. “Parents should not assume that children remember how to get to school or the bus stop, even if they’ve done it before.”
Parents might also want to review simple rules for crossing roads with younger children. Those simple rules include:
— Walking on the sidewalk when one is available, and facing traffic if forced to walk on the street.
— Stopping fully and looking left and right — twice — to make sure there are no cars coming before crossing a road.
— Crossing at crosswalks and making eye contact with drivers to ensure they are stopped and will remain so.
— Avoiding distracted walking, such as walking and using a mobile phone at the same time.
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How to Bike to School Safely
Many children in middle school can ride a bike to school by themselves.
“Around age 10, children can combine the cognitive (thinking about traffic and applying rules of the road) and motor skills (bike handling) that are needed to safely ride a bike on the road,” Cara Hamann, assistant director of training and education at the University of Iowa Injury Prevention Research Center, wrote in an email. “Children under age 10 are still developing the ability to combine their biking-related cognitive and motor skills, so are encouraged to ride on trails or sidewalks and with adult supervision.”
Safety experts say children who bike to school should follow simple safety rules:
— Ride on the right side of the road, with traffic, in a single-file line.
— Stop completely before crossing a street, and walk the bike across the road.
— Wear properly fitting helmets and bright clothing.
How to Safely Ride the Bus
To prepare students to ride a bus to school, parents should go to the bus stop with their children and teach them the correct way to get on and off the bus.
“The biggest risk regarding school buses is children approaching and exiting the bus,” according to the American Safety Council.
To stay safe, children should:
— Stand 6 feet, or three giant steps, away from the curb.
— Walk on the side of the road until they are 10 feet ahead of the bus before crossing in front. The bus driver and child should always be able to see each other.
— Avoid trying to retrieve anything dropped near the bus. Instead, let the bus driver know and ask for help.
— Avoid walking behind the bus or in other places the driver cannot see.
— Sit facing forward and remain seated as the wheels on the bus get rolling.
— Listen to the bus driver and report anything unusual, such as an unfamiliar adult or bullying.
Parents who drive and drop their kids off to school should be extremely careful in the car line. “Watch for kids biking and walking, especially during school start and end times and within roughly a mile radius around schools,” Hamann says. “Our research has shown that a typical bike route to school is just over a mile.”
Vaccines, Masks and COVID Safety
Of course, safety extends beyond transportation. While some states have seen political conflict over the use of COVID protections, the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are clear.
“CDC recommends everyone 12 years and older should get a COVID-19 vaccination to help protect against COVID-19,” the recommendations say. “Children 12 years and older are able to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.”
The recommendations also say, “Children between the ages of 2 and 12 should wear a mask in public spaces and around people they don’t live with.”
CDC recommendations for families that have both vaccinated and unvaccinated members say all those who can get a COVID vaccine should do so. They also say, “You might choose to have everyone in your family, even those who are vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in public regardless of the level of transmission in your area.”
As Cadiz, the pediatrician, says, “it’s really about protecting each other.”
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Avoiding Injuries and Peer Conflict
According to the National Safety Council, many school-related injuries are completely preventable. To prevent common school injuries, children should:
— Use both straps on their backpacks to evenly distribute the weight on their shoulders.
— Keep backpacks at a reasonable weight and not overstuffed. They should weigh no more than 5% to 10% of a child’s body weight. Brighter colors are better for visibility.
— Be careful storing rolling backpacks, which can create a tripping hazard in crowded areas.
— Leave necklaces and backpacks with drawstrings at home, since children will be spending time running and jumping on the playground.
Safety experts say that social interactions are an area parents should monitor carefully. Because many children spent long amounts of time at home in the last year, without direct peer contact at school each day, the complex social dynamics and relationships that take place in a classroom and playground may cause friction.
Cadiz says that parents should talk to their children about the return to in-person school, asking specific questions that give some insight into what’s going on. Look for signs of bullying or other problems that can occur. Mental health, Cadiz says, is extremely important.
“Throughout the pandemic, we saw a huge surge in anxiety and depression,” she says. “Going back to school, we’ll see the other side of it — having trouble reintegrating.”
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