News Local

Sidewalk or bus: parents want one or the other

By Nathan Taylor, Orillia Packet & Times

Concerned parents are looking for safer options for their children who walk to and from a north-end elementary school.

School closures and boundary changes have rerouted those who walk to some schools, including Couchiching Heights Public School.

When Hillcrest Public School closed, Mary Jennens's seven- and 13-year-old boys began attending Couchiching Heights. Her kids are part of the "parade" of students who walk from the Laclie Street school down Old Muskoka Road.

That wide road narrows when winter weather arrives, and that's where Jennens's concerns come in.

With encroaching snow banks and no sidewalks, "it's not safe" for the kids and the adults who walk with them, she said, adding most of the children who walk that route are in kindergarten to Grade 3.

Traffic is also a concern, she said, noting a city bus and a bus for Catholic school students travel the road with regular traffic.

Jennens, a member of the parent council at her kids' school, says families in the area want at least one of two things: a sidewalk or a school bus.

"I understand there are budget constraints," she said. "If you can at least provide a school bus for when there's nasty weather, that cuts out the walking in the snow."

But the Simcoe County District School Board has a "very clear" policy, explained Steve Blake, superintendent of education.

If students live within 1.6 kilometres of their school and there is "a direct and practical route, they're not eligible for busing," he said.

Old Muskoka Road is considered a practical route. There's also the less-travelled Highland Avenue, Blake noted. It, too, does not have a sidewalk.

The board did send a team to assess the area during the morning and afternoon, at times when students are walking to and from school.

"The conditions for students travelling to and from school by foot are consistent with those found elsewhere within the board," Blake said. "If we get into a situation where the parents are suggesting it's no longer practical, we would send a team out to assess, but we have no plans to put any transportation in place at this time."

Students have been walking that and other routes for years, "and there haven't been issues," Blake added.

Jennens is asking the board - and the City of Orillia - to be proactive.

It takes Jennens and her kids about 20 minutes to walk to the school, and she worries about the children making the trek on colder days, especially the kids with medical conditions, including her youngest son, who has asthma.

Acting on behalf of more than a dozen families, Jennens has also contacted city councillors about getting a sidewalk on Old Muskoka Road, as sidewalks are typically not the responsibility of school boards.

Among those she contacted was Coun. Tim Lauer, who has for a couple of years been pushing for a sidewalk on Laclie Street, from North Street to Couchiching Heights Public School, just north of Fittons Road.

"This issue, some of us saw coming when (the school board) first proposed to change the catchment areas of the schools," he said.

A sidewalk on Laclie Street is "closer to the top of the priority list," as it is an arterial road, Lauer said.

"We've pushed it into high gear for the kids, but it's a problem for everybody," he said. "There's no organization at all to that section of road. It's a dangerous area."

But even the Laclie Street sidewalk won't happen before the snow flies. It's likely to come up in budget discussions in February, which leaves the uncertainty about the possibility of a sidewalk on Old Muskoka Road.

It could become priority at some point, Lauer said: "That's something we'll have to watch."

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