School board set to lengthen students’ walking distances

School board set to lengthen students’ walking distances

CUMBERLAND – School officials are considering a recommendation to change the geographic limits that kindergarten students would need to live outside of to get busing services. The change, from a quarter-mile to three quarters of a mile, would be consistent with the policy for grades 1-5.

Supt. Bob Mitchell told the School Committee at a forum on July 21 that school officials learned during the process of drafting the change to new walking distances that there are 486 students across all grade levels who live within walking distance of a school but are currently getting bus services.

A number of students currently receive busing for safety reasons, such as living on Nate Whipple Highway or Scott Road, where there are no easy routes, and those students will continue to get busing unless their parents decide to help the district and bring their children to school in the 2020-2021 year. There are definitely some streets that are not safe to walk, said Mitchell.

School Committee member Karen Freedman said she lives off Pound Road, which is within walking distance of Cumberland High School, but her children were always bused because of their location. Asked earlier this year whether she would take advantage of busing in 2020-2021, Freedman said she said no because she knew the issues the district would be facing with busing.

Freedman said she’s asking other parents to seek alternate ways to bring children to school, particularly if they’re in a similar situation where they’re within walking distance, to help the district get through a challenging year. She said there will be big challenges getting students to school and doing so on time.

Standards for middle school busing are for students to live outside 1.5 miles from a school, and for CHS the standard is two miles.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing school leaders to completely rethink busing for 2020-2021, said Mitchell.

The committee last week tabled a vote on the change to its Aug. 6 meeting.

Part of the difficulty facing the district, said Chairman Paul DiModica, is that the Rhode Island Department of Education still hasn’t given an answer on how many students can be on a school bus. Also a challenge is the town’s lack of walkability.

“We’re a town without sidewalks,” he said.

Mitchell last week asked the school board to consider his recommendation to change the policy so students within walking distances who are currently being transported to school by bus be required to walk to school per district policy. The superintendent also needs the committee’s approval for the bump in distance for kindergarten.

All changes will be reviewed by the Cumberland Police Department, according to Mitchell, so school officials can ensure that students who are being asked to walk because they live within walking distances are safe. Highway Supt. Frank Stowik will also be brought into the discussion.

Member Mark Fiorillo asked that actual walking distances be measured, and not distances “as the crow flies.” A map of Valley Falls makes it look like students can walk to school, he said, but they’re forced to walk a much longer route because of the divide of the railroad. DiModica agreed, saying the district can’t have students crossing railroad tracks.

One change that will be necessary in this new plan is the addition of five new crossing guards, said Mitchell.

State Rep. Jim McLaughlin said this week that he planned to meet Wednesday, July 29, with DiModica and Arthur Bovis, of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, to discuss the condition of crosswalks on state roads in town and to formalize a list for painting and enhancements. The town needs to get its children to school safely, he said.

If the district is able to reduce the number of students taking buses, in part by getting students within walking distances to walk, administrators will be able to spread students out safely and improve its ability to get students to and from school while meeting CDC guidelines, said Mitchell.

DiModica said transportation provider Durham School Services needs to make plans on routing, including picking up students during winter months. Students can be picked up on the way to school as long as the district meets guidelines, he said.

The school board tabled the measure to give parents time to learn more about the proposal and be able to voice their opinions.