Back to School 2020: In-Person Learning Recommendations

family going to school

Returning to school in person will not be the same experience as it was before COVID-19. Every aspect of the school day will have to change when students and staff members return to buildings, starting with the trip to and from school.

Safe Routes to School programs have a crucial role to play when it comes to supporting community members in safely traveling to and from school in person. More than ever, schools and families need safe, convenient routes for walking and biking as a socially distant option for traveling around the community and getting physical activityespecially for families who do not feel safe riding the bus or do not own cars. At the same time, Safe Routes to School programs will have to make significant changes to core activities such as Walk to School Day, Walking School Bus programs, and in-class education; and may not be able to rely on traditional sources of funding and support from educators and volunteers. These recommendations will help you anticipate how social distancing, safety regulations, and new demands placed on families and educators could impact your program, and how you can prepare now to support students and families navigate the return to school and adapt to permanent changes in daily life.


Guiding recommendation: The experience of returning to school in person is not monolithic. For some, it may be a welcome return; for others it may be filled with anxiety and countless other emotions in between. Take time to ask members of your community how they’re doing and what they need to make the return as healthy, safe, and comfortable as possible. 


  • Host Zoom calls for families and caregivers to ask questions about walking and biking to school. Connect families that are accustomed to walking and biking with families that are new to it. 

  • Reach out to parents, caregivers, volunteers, Walking School Bus leaders, and community partners. Check in with them to see how they are doing and what they need, including needs that are not necessarily related to Safe Routes to School. Work with them to connect with the students they interact with through their Safe Routes to School program to do the same. 

  • Explore alternative communication methods to strengthen engagement in your Safe Routes to School program.

  • Use targeted outreach to engage parents and caregivers who don’t usually jump to leadership or volunteer opportunities for a variety of reasons. Work with school community liaison or engagement specialists to reach out to low-income, Black, and Indigenous families, and families of color. Keep engagement asks specific and task-oriented, keeping in mind to not overburden families with coordinating programs.

  • Connect with teachers to understand how you and Safe Routes to School programming can help them meet the unique needs they are facing going back to school. 


  • While you may be passionate about walking and bicycling to school, remember that not everyone feels the same. Meet people where they’re at. Listen to what they are experiencing, what they need, and what they want before launching into traditional messages about the benefits of walking and biking. Be prepared to make modifications accordingly. 


  • Use the Safe Routes Community Engagement cards to spark curiosity, encourage free expression, and engage diverse people in a variety of settings. These activities are great for outreach events, planning meetings, training sessions, and classroom instruction, and should be organized in accordance with local guidelines.

Planning for the long term

  • Identify organizations and groups outside of police departments with positive, existing relationships with schools, and come up with creative strategies to partner and improve engagement through collective impact. Work with youth, families, teachers, and community partners to brainstorm solutions for culturally-informed programming that meets local needs. 

  • Foster connection, communication, and relationships among parents and caregivers who participate in walking programs. Use existing applications or develop contact lists so that families can more easily contact each other, particularly if they need help transporting kids to school.  


Guiding recommendation: The COVID-19 pandemic has not affected all communities equally. Focus attention and resources on Black, Indigenous, and communities of color that have been most adversely impacted by the pandemic.


  • Utilize a number of outreach methods to reach students and families, including text messaging, teleparent, social media, NextDoor, paid advertising, culturally-centered radio channels, and local TV.  

  • Partner with local community groups such as churches, recreation centers, and boys & girls clubs. Be an ally, volunteer, offer bike repairs, and show up for other organization’s priority concerns. 

  • Translate communications and materials into languages spoken and commonly used in your community. If your community has limited programming options at this time, take this opportunity to translate and distribute materials. 

  • Host a bike swap program to provide bikes to people who need them most. Engage with your local bike shop to assess bikes, then host a swap using a lottery system where donors could trade for a different bike, and those without a bike could choose from what is available. 


  • The first day of Safe Routes to School programming should not be the first time a community meets or sees practitioners. Build in time to get to know the community and open up communication about their history and assets and resources that have worked, and build trust before entering. This is particularly important for practitioners who live or identify outside of a specific community. 

  • Remember that some students and families may have pre-existing conditions that place them at a higher risk of complications if they contract COVID-19. While encouraging walking and biking, be aware that this may be a reason that families or caregivers are driving their students, and don’t force people to disclose personal health information to justify why they are driving. 


Planning for the long term

  • Prioritize engaging with Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color. Center Black lives and voices and offer culturally-sensitive, trauma-informed programming. Stick through difficult conversations and promote tools to help the community build resilience and heal.

  • Stay connected to the Safe Routes Partnership's blog for reflections on how Safe Routes efforts can support Black Lives, racial justice, and equitable access in your community.


Guiding recommendation: Walking and biking are safe, healthy, physically distant options for students whose parents and caregivers do not feel comfortable putting them on the bus and do not own cars. Focus engineering treatments on slowing traffic speeds and using quick-build approaches to prevent increased traffic and potential conflicts between students and cars, and ensure that families are safe walking or biking to and from school. In the broader community, focus infrastructure improvements in neighborhoods with the least amount of green/open space and slow, safe streets for walking, biking, and physical activity. 


  • Work with your school and district to ensure there are clear places for students to wait at appropriate distances before entering the school if temperature and other symptom checks are in place. 

  • Consider modifying driving access to schools to accommodate more space for students to wait at appropriate distances before entering schools and/or create physical separation between where cars are driving and where students are waiting to enter school.

  • Use visual cues painted or taped on the ground to indicate which travel mode is appropriate in which space. 

  • Share the NACTO Recovery Streets School Streets guide with your school transportation agency and/or department of public works. 

  • Host walk audits of routes to school from neighborhoods with students newly deemed walkers/bikers due to decreased bus capacity. Propose temporary or quick build recommendations to local departments of public works and/or school transportation offices. Consider physical distancing, PPE and health guidelines when completing in-person audits, and develop instructions for conducting virtual audits independently or in smaller groups. 

  • Experiment with tactical urbanism projects and pop-ups to make changes, especially while there may be less car traffic in your community. Activate crosswalks and sidewalks with creative artwork, work on temporary or permanent infrastructure installations, and incorporate positive health and safety messaging. 

  • Work with students to create wayfinding signage to encourage physical distancing, share reminders to wear PPE, and ease congestion and confusion during drop-off and pick-up. Wayfinding signs to classrooms may alleviate the stress of having to navigate campus with COVID restrictions in place. Use temporary wayfinding signage to direct students and families on safe routes to school. 

  • Engage city planners and engineers to adjust timing of crossing lights during school drop off and pick up hours. Request that they automate traffic signals so that students are not routinely touching buttons to cross the street. 

  • Focus on low-cost, fixable changes like installing signage related to air quality. With potential for increased driving to and from school, consider programs like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Air Quality Flag Program, which encourages schools to raise a colored flag based on how clean or dirty the air is for the day using Air Quality Index colors.

  • Work with your school to reduce congestion at pick up and drop off by staggering start and dismissal times by grade or by mode. If dismissal times are staggered by mode, dismiss walkers/bikers first to allow the time to get off campus before cars are moving.

  • Install or increase the number of bike racks available to account for increased bike riding to school, and locate racks away from areas prone to crowding. 


  • Consider physical distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and adhere to local health guidelines when completing in-person audits. 

  • Include students and families in developing audit materials and completing walk audits in your community, to ensure user friendliness and maximum engagement. 

  • Prioritize infrastructure projects that improve safety in neighborhoods and in communities most adversely impacted by the virus, focusing on Black and Indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income neighborhoods and communities. 


  • Tactical Urbanism and Safe Routes to School fact sheets

  • NACTO Recovery Streets - Schools

  • EPA Air Quality Flag Program

  • Obtain temporary wayfinding signage through Walk Your City or reurpose lawn signs that many communities have used to congratulate graduates 

  • Find examples of changing and automating traffic signals to promote walking and biking in Seattle, Washington and Chattanooga, Tennessee

  • Use this factsheet on improving school arrival and dismissal to increase safety for kids walking and wheeling

  • Innovation in Action: In Metro-Atlanta, Georgia Commute Schools has an anti-idling initiative that encourages parents to reduce idling in the car-rider line. In partnership with the EPA, they provide Air Quality index flags and two anti-idling signs to schools as an effort to improve air quality during arrival and dismissal periods. Schools hold what’s called “Idle-Free” days, which are sometimes held on the same day as Walk to School Days to educate drivers on the importance of turning their engines off. 

Planning for the long term

  • Use engineering and infrastructure improvements to chip away at the inequities in access to safe, convenient transportation options and places for outdoor recreation that have contributed to inequitable disease burden among Black and Indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities.


Guiding recommendation: Promote walking and biking to school as safe, healthy, fun, and appealing ways to get to school.


  • Release communications that share that walking and biking to school are viable options; driving is not the only choice!

  • Tailor walking school bus programs to adhere to local health regulations. For example, limit the number of students in each walking school bus, use visual cues to encourage students to stay 6 feet apart from one another, and distribute PPE (such as masks with your program logo!). Note that walking school buses are included as a transportation strategy for schools that reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic in guidance from the Harvard School of Public Health. 

  • Provide incentives that support student health, like masks and hand sanitizer.

  • Promote walking and biking to school as ways for parents, families, and caregivers to stay active while traditional gyms and fitness opportunities are closed. 

  • Check in with volunteers about their ability or willingness to participate. If they are willing and able to participate, ensure they are up to speed on current local health guidelines and requirements regarding PPE and physical distancing. 

  • Set up a Remote Drop Off/Remote Park-N-Walk for people who live too far to walk the whole trip, but wish to walk or bike part of the way. This can also help alleviate increased traffic around the school. 

  • If your community has closed streets or slowed traffic to create more room for people to walk and bike at appropriate distances, promote routes to school that use those streets. 

  • Reprogram funding to offer mini-grants or stipends to small businesses, parents, caregivers, and local community members to serve as Walking School Bus leads, corner captains, or remote drop-off site coordinators. 


  • It is likely that staff and volunteers will have reduced capacity or ability to support program implementation, either due to restrictions on people on campus or concerns about personal health and safety. 

  • Consider safety precautions for physical incentive items (toys, pencils, stickers) and follow quarantining guidelines before distributing to students and families. Explore online games or activities that could be earned in place of physical incentives. 

  • Your school district may have regulations about volunteers. Previous volunteers may have new concerns about how they are willing to engage. 

  • Often, businesses are willing to offer incentivesbut be mindful that many businesses are struggling now due to the pandemic. Consider whether it is appropriate to partner with local businesses to offer prizes such as gift cards or coupons. 

  • Take a “two-generation” approach, such as “Safe Routes for All” with programming and options for the whole family. 


Planning for the long term

  • Plan ahead for future Walk/Bike to School Days using this fact sheet. Some communities are considering Winter Walk to School Days. If you are thinking about that and need photos of kids walking and biking in the winter, check out the Safe Routes in All Weather photo library

  • This is a unique moment in history where people are walking and biking more. Focus communications on how people can incorporate this new habit into their life for more than recreation.


Guiding recommendation: Teach kids, families, and caregivers how to walk and bike to school while abiding by health and safety precautions as well as local guidance or regulation related to COVID-19.


  • Promote walking and biking to school as healthy, physically distant ways for kids to get to school. 

  • If walking or biking in groups, instruct kids, families, and caregivers to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and use hand sanitizer. Provide this if possible. 

  • Students who had previously been bussed may be deemed walkers due to shortages in bus capacity to meet physical distancing requirements. Work with your school district to promote walking and biking, disseminate existing Safe Routes to School maps, and connect families that are accustomed to walking and biking with families that are new to it. Parents and caregivers may view the suggestion coming from the district to be more credible than from Safe Routes to School advocates. 

  • Host physically distant “walk to school” practice days to familiarize families with the safest routes to school. 

  • In addition to walking and rolling, incorporate school bus activities or remote drop off into Safe Routes to School education and encouragement programming. For example, provide education on how to safely wait for and board the school bus with distancing measures in place.

  • Create a standardized set of protocols for health and proper sanitation when engaging in Safe Routes to School activities like bike rodeos, Walk to School Day events, Walking School Buses, etc. Consider what precautions need to be taken such as physical distancing, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), and sanitizing shared equipment like bike fleets and helmets.


  • Parents and caregivers may be more receptive to the idea of walking and bicycling to school if it comes through a trusted entity, such as a principal or the school district. 

  • Local regulations change quickly. Stay apprised of current regulations and be prepared to adapt when local guidance changes. 

  • It is likely that staff and volunteers will have reduced capacity or ability to support program implementation, either due to restrictions on people on campus or concerns about personal health and safety. 

  • Activities should reflect the feedback received during Evaluation & Engagement efforts. Community input should inform what Safe Routes to School programs look like with COVID-19 changes.


Planning for the long term

  • After the school year begins, work with teachers and school administrators to discuss how your Safe Routes to School program can continue to offer traffic safety education and physical activity programming. Develop a Safe Routes to School guide for parents and identify ways they can get involved with and support your local program. Use these resources on volunteer recruitment and management to get started and this resource for parent champions. 

  • Consider how bicycle skills education can be incorporated into physical education in order to support kids safe, physically distant, independent mobility to school. Get started here

  • Advocate for Safe Routes to School efforts and reinforce relevance of how physical activity boosts mental health and improves immune response toward chronic and infectious diseases. 

Guiding recommendation: Evaluate how the coronavirus pandemic has affected student travel mode. If capacity allows, assess impact on broader community transportation as well. 


  • Continue conducting school travel tallies to determine whether the pandemic has affected travel mode. Transition to electronic school surveys to collect data for travel tallies, modes of travel, and travel routes. Continue offering paper surveys to those with limited or inconsistent internet or technology access. Consider safety measures needed to continue with paper surveys.

  • Survey, talk with and listen to youth, parents, caregivers, teachers and other partners to identify needs, experiences, and possible solutions due to COVID-19 and the changing environment. Use evaluation to inform programming and funding opportunities.

  • Make a prioritization list of communities most in need and try to direct resources to those communities first.

  • Assess how shifts in traffic volume and speed have affected active transportation rates and safety. 

  • Collaborate with local partners and agencies who provide essential needs and servicesmutual aid events and food distribution centers could be opportunities to give away bike helmets, educational materials, bike swaps etc.

  • If your community has already undertaken Open Streets, Play Streets, Slow Streets, or any other innovative approaches to making more public space available for people to be outside, assess what neighborhoods these are available in. Support community members to self-determine whether something like this is desired and if so, the approach to increasing public space and safe opportunities for recreation and travel that would be most beneficial to them and their neighborhood.

  • Use the built environment to gather data. Invite people to share thoughts and concerns on a community comment board, a sidewalk chalk display, or a comment box set up at a food distribution center. 


  • Recognize that teachers, like all of us, are bearing additional cognitive and emotional load dealing with the effects of the pandemic. This may not be the time to ask them to conduct school travel counts. 

  • Communities everywhere have seen an uptick in walking, biking, and outdoor play, and the disparities in access to safe, open spaces have been magnified. 

  • Many cities are seeing increased speeding due to low traffic volumes, resulting in pedestrian deaths. Determine whether this is happening in your community. 


  • Assess mode shift in your community by conducting a traffic count. Get started with these trainings and materials from the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Document Project, and explore innovative apps like CounterPoint for non-gendered and gender observed options.

Planning for the long term

  • Revise or create a new Safe Routes to School action plan with programming strategies for COVID-19. If you need an idea for where to get started on Safe Routes to School action planning, check out the action plans for several California communities here (midway down the page).