Parents say sidewalks must be cleared for kids' trek to school
April Knee (rear) and her nine-year-old twins, Alex (in front of Knee) and Ali (front), and neighbour Morgan Hann, also nine, are shown on Pennywell Road in St. John's. They have to walk along the busy street to reach Bishop Abraham Elementary school. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram
"Car," warns April Knee as she guides her two nine-year-olds on slippery streets towards Bishop Abraham Elementary school in central St. John's.
Knee, son Alex and daughter Ali are travelling single file, with her co-worker and her two children.
They squeeze in as close as they can to the snowbank as the car passes, sliding inches away from the pedestrians.
But they are only on Franklyn Avenue and the worst is yet to come - busy Pennywell Road, where traffic whizzes by and walkers must hug the snowbanks and hope they make it safely to school.
The two mothers stay behind their kids in case one of them slips - so they can reach out and grab them.
After dropping their children off at Bishop Abraham, the two women - neighbours in low-income housing Rockcrest Court - make a beeline on foot for Elizabeth Avenue, where they work.
There is some sidewalk plowing done on Pennywell, but it is mostly priority two and three, unlike Elizabeth Avenue, where Knee and her co-worker find the sidewalks near Memorial University plowed on both sides on many winter days.
It's the children's first year at Bishop Abraham. Previously they went to Macpherson Elementary, which has since closed. Back then, the families were able to take a series of side streets that kept them off busier thoroughfares.
Now, the school bus passes them on the way to school and never seems full, Knee said. They live 1.2 kilometres away from Bishop Abraham - the regulations say students must live at least 1.6 kms away to take the bus.
"The issue has never been the distance. We don't mind. We're walkers anyway," Knee said as they prepared for a recent morning's walk to school
"But it is just so unsafe right now. There's oil trucks. There's transport trucks. There's plows. It's madness and people are just flying. ... I would probably never have been so upset if it wasn't that Elizabeth Avenue was done on both sides. MUN students don't need their hands held. They can walk on the road. I can walk on the road. That's where we got our jobs to and our issue is not with us walking.
"But when I got to Elizabeth Avenue, after walking (Pennywell) in single file, three kids in front of us, ... I just lost it."
After a snowfall, it can be two or three days before any sidewalk on Pennywell is cleared, Knee said.
"(The government) closed the school down that they could actually get to safely, and now everybody just wipes their hands of everything," she said.
"I understand the city probably only got so much of a budget. ... But if they can do both sides of Elizabeth Avenue, they can surely do one side of Pennywell Road.
"The provincial government are the ones that closed the school down. Why don't they pay to pick up a little bit of the slack and help give a little bit of funding just to get the sidewalks done in the school areas? Oil is supposed to be booming here. But where's it going? Certainly the children of the province aren't seeing any of it. ... Kids are risking their lives every day to get to school, with all this money (in the province). It just doesn't make sense."
Knee said they've had drivers honk and shout at them many times.
"Over there by that gas station, it's nerve-wracking," she said, pointing at a North Atlantic station.
"If they don't want to give a school bus, fine. So be it. But at least clear the sidewalks."
Knee challenged school board officials, and even Premier Kathy Dunderdale to walk the routes some kids have to take in winter.
"Trying to get across Pennywell is too hard," agreed her son Alex, who tripped one day trying to get over a snowbank by the hockey arena.
"Thank goodness my feet weren't out on the road," he said.
St. John's Centre NDP MHA Gerry Rogers has been trying to help Knee find a solution.
"She hasn't stopped trying to help us. She has been at this since the beginning and she's not getting anywhere with it," Knee said.
Rogers said the traffic is drastically different now compared to when busing policies were devised. She's been told the family simply doesn't fall within the allowable busing range.
"This is about kids getting to school safely. It's not about kids getting to the playground," she said.
NDP education critic Dale Kirby is creating a petition to challenge what he sees as an outdated busing policy that must be reviewed.
"I've been working with teachers and parents and anybody who will listen," said Kirby, who intends to push the issue when the House of Assembly opens in March and not let it go.
He said the government's answer is it wants kids to walk to promote fitness. But that's cold comfort in the winter when children are forced to walk in unsafe conditions on the street.
Kirby said there are several schools where kids have to cross four to five lanes of traffic if they are walking.
One of his constituents, a single mother on a fixed income, asked him what she's going to do if she has to walk her child to school in winter with a newborn in tow.
He said according to school board and education officials, the answer is to send the child in a taxi - something the woman can't afford.
"That doesn't work for some people," Kirby said.
He said the busing policy dates back decades when traffic volumes in the metro area were much lower.
Paul Mackey, the city's director of public works, said sidewalk plowing is prioritized and those areas with the highest risk are at the top of the list. Pennywell Road is a collector road, which is at a lower priority level than main arteries.
When it comes to prioritizing which streets get sidewalk plowing, being in the vicinity of an elementary school is not a distinguishing factor.
Sidewalks are cleared almost immediately in school drop-off zones - but that's only within a block of a school.
In an emailed response, Education Minister Clyde Jackman reiterated that the provincial government provides school bus service to students who live 1.6 kilometres or more from their zoned school -regardless of where they live in the province.
"Parents are responsible for ensuring students who live within that zone get to, and from, school each day," he said.
"This is a policy which compares very favourably to other jurisdictions in Canada. For example, in Nova Scotia, it is 3.6 kilometres. In New Brunswick, it is 2.4 kilometres."
Jackman said there is no plan to change the bus policy to include accommodate students who live closer than 1.6 km from the school.