About 150 Kenai Peninsula School District students braved the cold to walk to their respective Soldotna schools Thursday morning, their breath forming little clouds of condensation in the early morning air.
While International Walk To School Day isn’t until Oct. 7, the district celebrated a bit early and supervised students from Soldotna Elementary, Redoubt Elementary and Soldotna Montessori as they walked from the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church to their respective schools. Jane Fellman, the coalition coordinator for Safe Kids of the Kenai Peninsula, has helped organize the walking events held on and off at different schools around the district for the last 15 years, she said.
Thursday’s Walk Your Kids to School event is a way to raise awareness about the dangers of walking to school in Alaska’s quickly-darkening environment, Fellman said.
“Our kids, they go to school in the dark … (and) a lot of them are coming home in the dark,” she said.
Soldotna Elementary Principal Teri Diamond and Redoubt Elementary Principal Bill Withrow said the walk is an opportunity for parents and guardians to share something special with their children, and it can be a “cool” experience for those who don’t normally walk to school.
“I think it kind of speaks volumes for itself,” Withrow said. “They’re excited, they’re happy, they enjoy it. In our community here, we have a lot of kids who walk to school.”
Students, parents and staff were accompanied on their respective treks by members of the Soldotna Police Department. While Soldotna police don’t escort children every day, they do patrol the school zones and walking routes to reduce speeding, said Officer Tobin Brennan.
“It’s important that everybody be aware that kids are traveling by foot every day. Everybody seems to forget that with the bus systems that we have,” Brennan said. “We have kids on bikes, we have kids that are walking, and so we hope that with our presence, it’s a reminder to look out for our little ones that are walking around.”
As trivial as it might seem, choosing brightly colored winter garb over a traditional black coat is vital for Alaskan students who get to school on foot, Brennan said.
“I’m hoping to spread the awareness, like the bright colors,” said first-time participant Officer Dan Brozek. “I see a lot of it here, (and) it’s good that everybody (has) these bright, reflective colors.”
Walk Your Kids to School Day is helpful in that it presses upon the students themselves the importance of being aware of their surroundings.
For some students, like Lucas Ermold, who attended school in Sterling before transferring to Soldotna Montessori, walking through busy residential neighborhoods is a new experience. Sticking to crosswalks and being aware of traffic is something some kids need to get used to, said his mother, Director of Elementary Education Christine Ermold, as she walked alongside him.
“Living out there (in Sterling), he doesn’t often get a chance to, like, deal with walking in town,” she said. “It just gives us a good chance every year to be thinking safety. We have a little bit of light right now, but it won’t be long and it’ll be dark and we’ll have all our babies walking to school.”
Lucas Ermold said walking to school in the dark does not pose a problem for him. Still living in Sterling, he no longer walks to school every day, but would have liked the chance to try biking, he said.
“I never got a chance to ride my bike to school, but if I was there this year, I probably would have rode my bike to school, because it’s got a little flashlight mount on it,” Lucas Ermold said.
Other students were less happy to be out in the biting October air. Clutching a cup of hot chocolate in her mittten-clad hands, third-grade Soldotna Elementary student Kiona Dexter said she would not be excited to participate in the walk again next year. When asked why, her answer was simple and to the point.
“It’s too cold,” she said.
The lessons learned from Walk Your Kid to School Day can be applied community-wide, Fellman said.
“It’s not only children, it’s adults,” she said. “We all tend to wear black, and we all need to be seen. Plus, we have the problem (that) we don’t always have sidewalks that are cleaned off. We have moose, (and) there’s just a lot of dangers there.”