Back to school is a busy time of the year – and a great opportunity to create new travel habits, like walking or biking to school. Use available communication channels, such as newsletters, websites, emails and social media, to remind families that with the right planning, active trips to school can be easy, as well as healthy, safe and fun.
For many students and families, the first few days of the school year – along with the weeks leading up to them - will set the tone for the school year. Parents have a lot of questions: what do my children need to bring, where should they go, etc. How they should get to school may not be a question they're consciously asking, but they're as open as they'll ever be to a compelling answer.
Many schools focus their transportation back-to-school message around traffic management in the school zone, which tells parents that driving to school is the standard. Setting a positive tone around active transportation at the beginning of the year can create positive expectations and best practices, and lay the groundwork for future efforts and communications.
Back to school communications can come from a number of sources or voices. Enlist other members of your school community get to the word out through as many channels as possible.
- Principal newsletter: This is the default back-to-school communication at many schools. While busy parents may not read every communication during the school year, the first newsletter is likely to be read from start to finish by parents looking for answers.
- Parent Advisory Committee communications: PACs communicate with parents through a variety of means, both active (through their own emails or newsletters) and passive (web pages, social media, etc.). Communications from the PAC can help create positive associations with a culture of active travel in a school community – they tell parents “this is how our community travels” in a way that official communications could never replicate.
- School District: The superintendent’s welcome message can carry a lot of weight, especially for new families, communicating what the district supports and prioritizes. Similarly, the District's website is an important resource for families new to a community, and can help direct parents and provide a consistent message in support of active travel.
- Local media: Often, local media will focus on traffic congestion or safety during the back to school period – but they’re open to new angles or interesting stories in the community they cover. Ask your local paper, TV or radio station to do a feature on your goal of getting more students walking and rolling to school.
As a parent, you likely already know what communication channels are available and effective for reaching other parents. If you're a new parent, ask other members of your school community how communication is usually handled.
Here are some tips for crafting your school’s back to school message:
- Communications about what CAN be done will create a more positive overall impression than reminders about what NOT to do.
- Focus on walking and rolling to and from school as the primary commuting methods. Many schools focus their return to school message about traffic management with their school zone. While congestion is often a problem, the only sustainable way to address it is to get more families walking and cycling and thereby reduce the number of cars around the school. Encouraging families travelling from far away to park and walk or use drive-to-five zones can make your message inclusive.
- Give your message or webpage a clear and positive title, such as Getting to School.
- If possible, include images of walking and cycling to school in your communications. Craft your message for its intended audience. Parents may not be willing to read long written sections on transportation. Use images, infographics, maps, and bullet points as appropriate to keep your message dynamic and get your point across.
- Dress for the job you want: feature the mode you want everyone to use first; walking and rolling should get top billing. The car should go last, and with it all of the traffic and safety reminders. These too are helpful and more pleasant to read when they are framed in a positive light.
- Online videos are a compelling way to communicate your message. Do a quick Google search and link to positive videos about the health benefits of active transportation. Or, if you are feeling ambitious, encourage student leaders at your school to produce their own!
- If you are piggybacking on a comprehensive newsletter, keep your content short and sweet. Provide a link to a web page or external resource for parents looking for more information.
Administrators and active PACs are usually getting ready for the new school year by mid-August. While this can be a busy time, they’re often at their freshest after the summer break. Reach out early and work with them to craft and schedule your message before things start to ramp up towards the end of the month.
The most obvious time for a back to school message is at the beginning of the school year. But the returns from winter or spring breaks are good opportunities to send reminders and seasonally-appropriate messages. For example, a message about appropriate clothing for walking outdoors sent in January can be a helpful reminder that active travel is an option year-round, while a note in spring encouraging parents to get their bikes tuned up can spark enthusiasm for cycling as better weather and longer days approach.
Producing and getting your first back to school communication about active travel sent out is the biggest hurdle. Once you’ve laid the groundwork and have your words and images together, slight tweaks, updates, and reminders are all that's needed to get it ready for subsequent years.
It may be best to start communicating to parents through PAC or school channels during your first year. Once you’ve laid the groundwork and honed your message, reach out to other members of the community – police, public health, the media, your municipality, the school district, etc. – to help them craft a positive back to school message and get everyone on the same page.
Many schools are used to focussing their back to school message on drivers and driving, and may be reluctant to switch gears. You may have some groundwork to lay before your principal or PAC will give you a platform. Getting information about active travel included along with traditional messages is a good place to start.