Columns

Begalka: Coping with bus shortages demands going back to the blackboard

48% of kindergartners through eighth-graders walked or biked to school in 1969 compared with 13% 40 years later

I have been following with interest all the angst surrounding the bus driver shortage in McHenry County and across the country. A little research confirmed that the cause is complicated.

Illinois school districts do require masks, including inside confined spaces like buses. But they do not mandate COVID-19 vaccines. The unvaccinated have the option of taking weekly COVID-19 tests, offered for free and – in many cases – at the district. It’s as seamless as it can get. But all of this belies the ongoing challenges of attracting bus drivers.

It was a problem long before COVID-19 struck and it will remain a problem even after the bonuses, pay raises and health challenges are in the rearview mirror. This systemic issue requires a new type of approach – quite possibly by recycling an old approach.

In early days of one-room schools, it was normal for children to walk a couple miles to their rural school. There was no reliable transportation network to get them there … unless dad happened to be heading into town. Even in the 1960s when I was growing up in Crystal Lake, I’d hoof it between Dole Avenue to North Elementary School – books in my arms and a pocket full of marbles.

I never paid it much mind … unless it was snowing.

According to the North Carolina-based National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48% of students in kindergarten through eighth grade walked or biked to school in 1969. Forty years later it had fallen to 13%.

The issue became clouded in debates over boundaries, school choice, rising land prices and cost of redeveloping downtown properties. Children from far-flung areas of a district were bused – most often to a regional middle school or high school – for reasons including class size, demographics and desegregation.

Just more than half of the almost 1,500 transportation coordinators surveyed in August by the National School Transportation Association described their bus driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” Fixing this will take more than establishing walk zones and staggering start times.

We need to reimage our approach to school construction and embrace the benefits experts say come from living within walking distance of a school. They include better communication between parents and teachers, greater participation in extracurricular activities, improved student health, lower transportation and maintenance costs, and a renewed sense of neighborhood pride.

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Illinois Humanities is partnering with the Savanna Museum and Cultural Center in Savanna, Oct. 9 to Nov. 13, to host “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America,” the newest Museum on Main Street exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

When American revolutionaries waged a war for independence, they embraced a radical idea of establishing a government that entrusted the power of the nation not in a monarchy, but in its citizens. That leap of faith raised questions – including who has the right to vote – that continue to impact America today. The exhibit includes historical and contemporary photographs, videos, interactive multimedia components, and artifacts covering the origins of democracy here, the expansion of voting rights, the institutions and systems through which we participate in the electoral process, civic participation and our responsibilities to this nation.

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About 400 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1620, the first Americans signed the Mayflower Compact before stepping ashore at Cape Cod, Mass. It is considered to be America’s “First Constitution.”

The Liberty Tree Society is offering complimentary Mayflower Compact Certificates to descendants of Compact signers. Descendants of signer or of a female passenger who was onboard can send a list of their ancestors and their birth dates to the nonprofit Liberty Tree Society at P.O. Box 929, Keene, NH 03431.

For information, email info@libertytreesociety.org

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The McHenry County Historical Society & Museum invites artists to participate in a juried art competition titled “This Place Matters: Historic Structures and Landscapes of McHenry County.”

Use your creativity and ingenuity to paint or draw historically significant buildings, structures and landscapes in McHenry County and submit them by Dec. 31. For details, visit www.gothistory.org.

• Kurt Begalka is administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society & Museum in Union. He can be reached at kurt@mchenrycountyhistory.org.