School buses don’t stop at the homes of 18,000 students in Akron. These students must catch a ride on a city bus or, if they’re fortunate, in a heated car with a friend or parent.
And many, some as young as 5, must walk icy sidewalks and busy streets to get to school.
As snow melted and refroze on sidewalks and thermometers temporarily rebounded from January’s record lows, Beacon Journal reporters walked to school this week with students who either bundled up or refused to wear coats, arrived at school with bruised tailbones or bloody lips, and often preferred walking in the streets to avoid slipping on an icy sidewalk.
Clear the sidewalks
By 6:30 a.m., custodians salt most sidewalks surrounding Akron schools. Beyond that lies the danger.
“I had [two kindergartners] come in today with bloody lips,” Philomena Vincente, principal at Leggett elementary, said Monday. “They just fell on the ice nearby before they got on the school sidewalks.”
It’s not just the little ones who fall. A health aide at North High School said about twice a week a teenager is treated for slips.
An icy sidewalk is the greatest concern among principals.
That’s because when the ice builds up, “We walk in the streets,” said Daquawn Sparkman, a 10th-grader at North.
Students walk in the middle of side streets where sidewalks vanish beneath the snow. In heavy-traffic areas, like Tallmadge Avenue or Copley Road, they hug the shoulder, walking on plowed streets instead of treacherous sidewalks.
From 2010 to 2012, 40 percent of the 53 recorded accidents involving a car striking an Akron student occurred during the winter months. Though drivers are most often cited, one 2010 police report found that a hit-skip could have been avoided if six students traveling to Jennings had stayed on the sidewalk, which was covered in snow “frozen enough to sustain body weight,” an officer reported.
Too cold for school?
Noelle Barker, 5, held her mother’s hand as the two walked Monday to Findley elementary in North Akron.
There’s no busing. “She has to walk,” mom, Chaney Barker, said.
She wraps Noelle in a scarf that covers what little bit of the 5-year-old’s smiling face isn’t tucked beneath a stocking hat. Neon gloves, a puffy red coat and white snow boots round out the winter wardrobe.
Every day, Noelle learns more than how to read: She learns how to safely walk to school. But on some frigid days, the lesson is too harsh for the child to endure.
“When it was zero degrees [in January] and they had school, I called her off,” Chaney Barker said.
She isn’t the only parent to not send a child out in the cold. Compared with a more mild week in December, attendance rates for every school in the North cluster dropped between 3 and 7 percentage points during January’s “polar vortex.” Findley had the most significant drop, from 93.4 percent attending in December to 86.5 percent in January.
Based on last year’s enrollment, that equates to 36 additional absentees at Findley and more than 100 students absent in all five North Hill schools.
When Pat White lowers her bright red stop sign, the cars in the school zone don’t always respond the way they should. “They don’t stop,” White, a crossing guard since 2004, said emphatically. “People don’t stop. I get in arguments all the time.”
White is among 130 crossing guards in Akron who stand between traffic and students. She has a perfect view from her post near Findley. She asks the children how far they’ve walked.
“They don’t really know. They just know it’s a long way,” she said.
She watches each morning as 30 or more students, dropped off by parents who must hurry off to work, line up in the cold before the doors swing open and breakfast is served at Findley.
Many of the students at Findley, where at least seven languages are spoken, are immigrants. They started the winter wearing sandals, White said. Many still do not wear coats. It has been a learning experience for families as international students and parents get accustomed to Ohio’s radical weather and the city’s road signs, written in another language.
Too cool to dress warm
Some students who headed to school this week refused to wear hats or gloves. They’re usually older, with an ego immune to the cold.
“Some of them do have items and they don’t wear them, and that’s frustrating,” said Megan Mannion, Sieberling elementary principal. She said others are less fortunate. And “more often than we know about” siblings are dressing younger brothers and sisters.
Many students bundled up as the temperature dropped this week. But there were some who wore only hoodies and T-shirts.
East ninth-grader Dylan VanHoorik, 14, was one of those in a hoodie and T-shirt. He estimated it takes a half-hour to walk to school, but he saw no problem with his choice of clothes.
“It’s warm,” he said.
Crossing guard Jim Marks, 70, said he has asked kids why they aren’t wearing hats and gloves, and why some take their coats off and fling them over their shoulders instead of wearing them.
There’s a simple reason: It’s not cool to bundle up. In the film A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, certainly didn’t look cool. And a hat can mess up your hair. Everybody knows hair can affect social status.
“You want to be cool,” Marks — who wore a hat, gloves and heavy parka — said of the kids. “I’m not cool. I’m warm.”
Larry Bowles says it happens almost every time he shovels his sidewalk and driveway apron on North Main Street in Akron: A plow comes along and dumps snow in the area he just cleared. Often, it’s a wetter, heavier snow that is hard to lift.
The result leaves walkers little choice.
“You see people in the street all the time,” Bowles said.
So what would he do if someone complains and cites the city sidewalk-clearing ordinance after the plow does its deed?
“First of all, I would take pictures of my clean sidewalk and go from there,” he said.
Calling for help
When Traci Williams saw a student walking on an East Market Street bridge toward East High School, she called 311. That’s the number Akron residents can use to complain or to alert the city to problems.
She told the city that plows had thrown snow up the bridge’s sidewalk and the student was walking in the street. She also said two area businesses had not shoveled walks.
“I’ve been watching every day,” she said Wednesday, “and nothing had been done. Even the bridge was covered.”
Beacon Journal staff writer Rick Armon contributed to this report. Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com. Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.