When stay-at-home orders went into effect in late March, many Safe Routes to School programs across the region switched gears from teaching bike and traffic safety to supporting schools and families to meet basic needs.
“[We] realized that with everybody needing to stay home and needing to be really cautious about the time they spend outside of home, that for a lot of people securing food was going to be a problem very soon,” said William Joseph, the community programs manager at the Community Cycling Center.
Joseph said the nonprofit’s staff, including Safe Routes to School coordinators, had a lot of time on their hands after they had to cancel their previously planned programming to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We're the kind of place where a lot of our employees are motivated to serve the community,” said Will Joseph.
(Video courtesy of Community Cycling Center)
Since April, the organization’s staff has delivered more than 2,500 boxes of food to nearly 200 families. The group partnered with Oregon Food Bank, Portland Public Schools, Multnomah County's SUN Community Schools, Living Cully and Verde, Latino Network and the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association to do this. Each week, staff along with 10 to 15 volunteers continue to haul boxes of food on trailers hitched to their bikes.
“We're planning to be in this for the long haul with our partners,” Joseph said.
Other Safe Routes to School programs across the region stepped in to support families as well.
Safe Routes to School staff with the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Multnomah County and The Street Trust delivered at least 550 boxes of food to families in Portland and Gresham.
Some school districts deployed their school buses to deliver food to families who do not live within walking distance to schools that were distributing meals. Other Safe Routes to School coordinators sewed masks for school bus drivers and delivered personal protective equipment to families across the region.
Highlights from Metro's
Learning from home
The toolkit compiles existing resources and key considerations for creating and promoting learning from home. These resources include lesson plans and activity books as well as ideas for wiggle breaks.
Learning and playing safely outdoors
The toolkit offers schools, local jurisdictions and community-based organizations information about how to create traffic playgrounds.
Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, children have experienced a number of events that could have created new traumas or triggered past ones. The toolkit offers caretakers, educators and families several resources on trauma-informed services and programs to support children's well-being during these troubled times.
The toolkit offers Safe Routes to School coordinators anti-hate messages that they can include as part of their education curriculum.
Oregon Food Bank also partners with Multnomah County’s SUN Service System to provide food distribution sites at schools. They had to scale back the number of schools from where they distribute food from 28 to 20 to serve the increasing need and ensure they had healthy supplies for all of them.
“We're still operating slightly differently but trying to get back to that same number of schools,” said Frances Hall, who works at Multnomah County as the SUN Service System anti-hunger policy specialist.
“We're really concerned about when the weather turns and when it gets darker,” she said. “We're trying to be creative as we can so that families don't have to be outside for a long stretch of time waiting to receive food.”
Hall said the county and Oregon Food Bank are exploring drive-thru options as well how to use technology, such as apps or text messaging, to help manage food distribution and delivery.
“After programs quickly pivoted in the spring to support families and school communities, Safe Routes to School Coordinators came together and realized that we needed to be proactive with the new school year starting up this fall,” said Noel Mickelberry, Metro’s Safe Routes to School coordinator.
To learn more about what else families will need to support their children during this new school year, Metro staff conducted a regional survey asking families about what transportation needs and challenges they anticipate when school returns in person. The survey also asked families what support they could use while school is virtual to keep kids active and healthy. More than 1,500 people responded to this survey in four languages.
The results of this survey helped shape Metro’s Safe Routes Back to School Toolkit for program partners.
“Schools have returned virtually,” Mickelberry said. “They’re also exploring returning in person eventually or doing a combination of virtual and in-person classes. So, we know it’s going to be difficult for teachers and administrators to navigate this new school year. And we also know families will need support both inside and outside the classroom.”
The toolkit includes at-home learning resources and activities, and information on future programming that incorporates public health guidance for when school returns in person. One idea for when school resumes in person is to create pop-up “traffic playgrounds” on school grounds where kids can learn and be active while staying physically distant from one another. Traffic playgrounds are like miniature cities, typically used to teach children the rules of the road.
Safe Routes to School coordinators have painted several pop-up traffic playgrounds throughout the region since April.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, coordinators discussed installing more of these traffic playgrounds around the region. In fact, Metro simultaneously released a Traffic Playground Toolkit for more permanent playground installations. “They have definitely taken on a different flavor [since then],” said MaryJo Andersen, the Safe Routes to School coordinator for Multnomah County.
(Video courtesy of Multnomah County)
The pop-up traffic playground at Pat Pfeifer Park, for example, became a no-contact outdoor classroom for a nonprofit called Play Grow Learn. During the summer, young people between the ages of 17 and 23 usually teach younger kids about walking and biking safely on the street. This year, because they couldn’t teach in person, they made a video about traffic safety that kids could watch from home.
Andersen said she is still exploring with school districts how to safely use these traffic playgrounds as no-contact spaces for kids to get their wiggles out. Andersen said the idea for the traffic playgrounds is to provide families with fun and safe activities to do during this COVID-19 crisis. Those activities also teach kids basic traffic safety, whether they are walking, biking or scooting.
PBOT also installed traffic playgrounds in some Portland neighborhoods. The agency had access to spaces that weren’t quite large enough for traffic playgrounds. Instead of traffic playgrounds, “we added what we call ‘playspaces,’” said Lale Santelices, PBOT’s Safe Routes to School coordinator.
These playspaces feature hopscotch, mazes and games that resemble obstacle courses. That way families could continue to have options for no-contact playgrounds. “Even if they didn't have the benefit of having the traffic education aspect, we still were able to create spaces for people to go and do something active while respecting social distancing,” Santelices said.
Besides concerns over COVID-19, many caretakers and families have personal safety on their minds.
“One of the results that stood out the most was the responses related to concerns about hate and harassment toward children based on race, ethnicity and gender identity,” Mickelberry said. “We included a list of potential challenges that ranged from exposure to COVID-19 to increased traffic in front of schools.”
Out of all the survey respondents, 7% of all families cited hate and harassment as a transportation challenge for their child’s return to school. That figure was higher for families with children of color – 16%. This was a greater concern for specific groups within that 16%:
- 24% of families with Asian or Asian American children
- 23% of families with Black children
- 13% of families with Native American children
- 12% of families with Latinx children
“These responses come from Gresham, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Portland – so, it is clearly an issue across the region,” Mickelberry said.
“We have not been getting data from schools at all,” said Debra Kolodny, executive director of Portland United Against Hate. “So… wow, this is really important to know because it's an augment to our data.”
A March 2020 report from Portland United Against Hate showed the impact of COVID-19 on recently reported bias incidents. Asian Americans make up 42% of reported incidents from February to April 2020. The report also showed that people under the age of 18 are the largest reporting group since PUAH started collecting data in 2017.
“It’s heartbreaking that this is happening for our children and it’s also not surprising,” Kolodny said.
“Look, the history of this state is that it was founded as a white state, as a white refuge,” she said. “That history has ensured that this has been a haven for white nationalists and haters, and, you know, people educate their children in their value system.”
Metro’s back-to-school toolkit includes anti-hate messaging that schools, families and caretakers can use during these troubled times.
“Overall, COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on kids and families – particularly families of color and those living on low incomes,” Mickelberry said. “This has really been a moment for Safe Routes to School programs to reflect on how we support students who face multiple barriers and how we support schools and families by incorporating health, accessibility, and community into our approach.”