Parents still upset about changes to school bus service in Arlington

On Wednesday morning, Arlington Public Schools will celebrate children walking and biking to school with a pep rally at Oakridge Elementary School, games, puzzles and other giveaways.

And a group of parents will continue getting signatures on a petition asking the school system to please, please let their kids ride the bus again.

Felicia Lopez’s thoughts on the annual walk-to-school celebration are “probably not something you can print,” she said. Like many families, she was notified in August that her 8-year-old son Jack would not be allowed to ride a bus because they live within a one-mile designated “walk zone.”

She wrote a letter to appeal the decision, saying that her son has a disability, that she is a single parent whose multiple sclerosis makes it impossible for her to walk nearly a mile with him twice a day, and that it is not safe for him to cross a busy commuter road by himself. “Then I got a robocall saying my appeal had been denied,” she said.

Since then, her elderly mother, who has arthritis, has been driving him to school, but on days when Lopez has to get a regular medical treatment, she has to take the car to get to the doctor’s office. “It cannot go on for the long term,” Lopez said, “because we’re just going on bubble gum and paper clips at this point.”

This year, 14,000 students received bus passes and 9,000 children were designated as walkers, according to Linda Erdos, the Arlington schools spokeswoman.

School officials had become concerned that since anyone could walk to a bus stop and hop on, some buses were overcrowded and they didn’t know which students were on which buses. The “walk zone” boundaries did not change — within one mile for elementary schools and 1.5 miles from middle and high schools — but were enforced for the first time.

Erdos said that about 250 children were affected by bus stops that were eliminated.

Parents say hundreds of other children felt the impact of the change in policy because, if their homes were in the “walk zone,” they were no longer allowed to use a nearby bus stop.

Nearly 500 families submitted appeals, and 222 of those were granted, Erdos said. Then the system contacted more than 200 other families who had not appealed, but had similar circumstances, and offered their children bus passes. School officials have looked at the roads, measured distances, and asked police for additional crossing guards, she said.

Communities across the country promote walking and biking to school as a way to encourage children to be more physically active and reduce traffic. At many schools in the Washington region Wednesday, families will walk together to mark “Walk or Bike to School Day.” Arlington schools have been observing the day for years.

“We are hearing from some schools that they’re seeing more walkers,” Erdos said. “Some schools have asked for more bike racks, because they have more bikers. That’s a good thing.”

Moley Evans, PTA president at Campbell Elementary School, said some children arrived to class Tuesday “soaked to the bone” after walking in steady rain. She said two moms have lost their jobs because they now have to walk with their children to and from school. And of the children expected to walk to school, 28 are preschoolers.

Evans said school officials have been sympathetic and responsive. But the problem, she said, still hasn’t been solved. She expects many parents will be at the school board meeting this week to raise the issue again.

“I can’t question any parents’ concerns for their child,” Erdos said.

The system is still considering other options, she said; the board and superintendent want to look at whether they can reduce the walk-zone areas. “We continue to look and see, how can we make this better.”

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.

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