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Shabana Mulla walks her daughter Rida, 10, the 1.4 km from their home in Crescent Town to George Webster Elementary School in Toronto, Sept. 18, 2018.Marta Iwanek/ The Globe and Mail/Globe and Mail

Most of the walk is along a busy road and just enough of a distance to make Shabana Mulla feel uneasy about her 10-year-old daughter’s daily commute to school.

Ms. Mulla could never get away from work in time to accompany her daughter on the 1.2 kilometre walk to and from George Webster Elementary School, near the east-end Toronto neighbourhood where they live. So she quit her job.

“It was a tough decision," said Ms. Mulla, who moved to Canada from India two years ago and was among a group of parents in the Crescent Town neighbourhood petitioning the local school board for a bus. “As we are newcomers, we’re still struggling to settle down in this country … . But you cannot expect kids to walk on their own that far. There’s two crossings. It’s dangerous.”

The problem: The local school board, guided by provincial rules, provides bus service for children who live at least 1.6 kilometres from school, and the petition was for about 70 students who lived 1.2 km away.

That 400 metres was the difference between a bus and what some parents believe is a treacherous walk to school. It raises a thorny issue of whether a seemingly arbitrary distance to qualify for a school bus in many parts of the country should be revisited to take into account parents' time or financial constraints, or road conditions that children have to navigate.

The rules to be eligible for student transportation vary from 1.6 km for kindergarten to Grade 5 students at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to four kilometres for primary students in Maple Ridge, B.C. Alberta’s School Act states that students who live more than 2.4 km from school are eligible, but the Calgary school board offers rides for a fee to young pupils who live within the walk zone.

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Rida Mulla, 10, walks to school with her mother Shabana Mulla (far right) as well as other parents and their children who live in Crescent Town in Toronto, Sept. 18, 2018.Marta Iwanek/ The Globe and Mail/Globe and Mail

A spokeswoman for Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson said the eligibility distances have been in the province’s Education Act since before 1990 and that the government is reviewing the student transportation policy.

Some parents and observers are challenging the rules, arguing that they are outdated and unique situations need to be examined more closely. Parents who work shift jobs, for example, are not always able to pick up or drop off their children. They don’t necessarily have cars or flexible work hours.

School districts follow provincial policy around busing because funding comes from the province. Budgets are constrained, boards say, and driver shortages are not uncommon. There’s an increasing push for children to walk to school for a number of reasons including physical benefits and minimizing traffic around school grounds.

John Ippolito, an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University, said he understands school districts are in a difficult position. Still, he said that the eligibility to ride a school bus needs to take into account more than just distance.

“I think it’s a lot more complicated than saying, ‘Well, kids should walk to school.’ Under certain circumstances, that may hold. But for a number of really important reasons, that’s not always that easy.”

A spokesman for the TDSB said guidelines are in place to ensure consistency across the city while balancing students' ability to walk to school. The children from Crescent Town had been attending a school just outside their building complex, but when it got too full, the TDSB transferred the Grade 5 cohort to George Webster, which was further afield.

“The TDSB does provide accommodations for unique circumstances,” said Ryan Bird, noting that students in Grades 6 through 8 are eligible for public-transit tickets. He added that board staff walked the route the 70 children from Crescent Town use “and have found it be similar to many other areas of the city.”

But parents such as Gregory Cutler have argued that districts need to consider young children walking these distances, especially in winter. Mr. Cutler, a resident of Centreville, a small town in Newfoundland and Labrador, was among a group of parents fighting for their children to ride the bus this school year.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has a long-standing rule that students who live 1.6 km or farther from their catchment school are eligible for transportation.

Mr. Cutler said his children live about a kilometre from school, but the strict enforcement of the rule does not work in rural communities. There are no sidewalks, and road shoulders can be covered in snow during the winter, forcing children to walk in the middle of the street, he said. He said he is also concerned about wildlife, especially coyotes, in the area.

The school district said it has proposed a courtesy stop within the 1.6-km zone, but that the parents want multiple stops “and further departures from policy.” The district said that it needs to work within its current budget allocation from the province.

Mr. Cutler said that it took longer for many children to walk to the courtesy stop than it did for them to walk to the school building.

“Every place should be looked at differently,” he said. “If you’re in a place where you have the infrastructure, then I think maybe it’s okay to walk that distance. When you’re dealing with towns that don’t have that infrastructure, it’s not a safe environment for kids to walk to school that distance.”

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