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From buses to bike routes, Newton reexamines how kids will get to school this fall

Newton Schools are preparing for the fall, but the way students will arrive is going to look a lot different than before the pandemic.

While he waits for state guidance, Liam Hurley, the assistant superintendent and chief financial and administrative officer for Newton Public Schools, said in an interview he doesn’t want to guess how school buses might proceed.

“The quick answer is we don’t know what to expect,” Hurley said.

School budget documents show the district hasn’t added more buses to its fleet as of May 6, and the number of eligible riders has increased slightly. Hurley said they are waiting for the state before releasing guidance on social distancing. In a June 10 statement Superintendent David Fleishman said the next school year likely will include “in-person learning at schools, distance learning with an improved schedule, and/or a hybrid of the two models to facilitate social distancing.”

It would be a challenge to add buses, Hurley said, and each costs the district over $100,000. The decision to add more will be made “given guidance, given the demand for what students may be needing and given the routes that we have established.”

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Margaret Albright, a Newton School Committee member who works on the School Transportation Steering Group, said officials are investigating alternative routes to school — but ones that don’t involve individual drop-offs, which are time consuming for parents and harmful to Newton’s environment.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can to get people to think differently about getting to school,” Albright said.

The Ward 2 committee member recently joined about 150 colleagues from around the state on a call they named “What We Know and What We Don’t” she said, “and the list of what we don’t know was much bigger than what we did.”

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School bus registration moved online this year, and once officials get an estimate of how many eligible students will sign up, they can start planning for social distancing based on state guidelines. Hurley said families can unenroll if they are not comfortable using buses in the fall. Until guidance comes from the state, he and Albright will be encouraging walking, biking, and other modes of transportation.

According to Albright, transportation for the approximately 400 students who travel from Boston as part of the METCO program, which enrolls Boston students in suburban districts, is still unknown.

“We worry about those kids a lot — they all have to come by bus,” she said.

Albright and the Transportation Steering Group are working on options for commuting to school that protect both children and the environment.

“If people are going to be afraid of the bus, then let’s give them some other alternatives beside putting their kids in the car,” Albright said, citing air pollution and pedestrian safety as reasons cars shouldn’t be lined up outside schools next year.

For families that have to drive, Albright said they are considering “light blue zones,” a version of school drop-off zones that will be a slightly longer walk from the schools’ front doors.

In Massachusetts, drivers can be fined for idling within 100 feet of a school, and on top of that, Albright said, after months of quarantining indoors, “our kids really need to get out there and get moving.”

Albright said the steering group is working with the city to update cross walks and ensure pedestrian routes are safe.

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Jenn Martin, the Newton coordinator for the Massachusetts Safe Routes to School Program, said that their virtual bike safety meetings teach kids how to signal as well as other road safety tactics. She said they are also testing bike routes around the city in preparation for the new school year.

After quarantining indoors for months, kids need to be active, Martin said.

“Next year it’s going to be so critical for kids to find a way to get exercise outside of school,” Martin said. Safe Routes has guidance on “Walking School Buses,” in which one parent leads several students along their route to school, and “Bike Trains,” which groups neighborhood kids with a trained leader who gets them to school.

For the winter, Martin said snow plow routes already are being discussed so kids will have clear sidewalks, and an added fine was established last year to improve the mechanism for compliance with snow removal laws.

Martin, who is also a Newton parent, said her main concern sending her kids back in the fall isn’t about the buses but rather that her children get the physical activity they need to allow them to learn in school. One of her kids is planning on cycling to school in the fall.

“When they get there, they will have accomplished something, they’ll have gotten their heart rate up, they’ll be ready to sit down and be still for a little while,” Martin said.

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Rhian Lowndes can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.