Many schools are eliminating or reducing bus service because fuel has jumped to $4.50 per gallon, 36 percent more than a year ago, and is busting budgets.
In California, districts are eliminating busing for thousands of students. Districts in Washington state, Iowa and Maryland and elsewhere are consolidating bus stops, canceling field trips and forcing students to walk longer distances to school to control costs.
Worried parents in Massachusetts have called WalkBoston, a nonprofit group that promotes walking, asking for help after their communities cut back on busing.
Health advocates long have encouraged students to walk, stressing the fitness benefits. But school and transportation officials say they fear that abruptly reducing bus service could lower attendance rates, increase traffic congestion or endanger students if they cannot walk on sidewalks and crosswalks.
"If you remove a school bus from the road, you're adding 40 to 50 cars in the morning and in the afternoon," said Bob Riley, spokesman for the American School Bus Council, which represents school transportation officials.
Major cuts loom in California, where schools are not required to provide transportation to campus. As a result, districts squeezed by fuel prices and fewer state dollars are trimming millions from transportation budgets.
The Capistrano United School District in Orange County, for example, has eliminated 44 of its 62 bus routes to save an estimated $5.7 million, district spokeswoman Julie Hatchel said. The cuts will affect an estimated 5,000 students from kindergarten to high school.
Leaders in three communities served by the district have threatened lawsuits, saying school officials are ignoring traffic and pollution implications. While cutting bus service is unpopular, Hatchel said it is better than firing teachers and increasing class sizes.
"Our goal was to keep those cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," she said.
Increased fuel costs are especially punishing on large, spread-out districts. The school board in Montgomery County, Md., covers the sprawling Washington beltway. It buses 96,000 children daily and burns about 3.3 million gallons of diesel annually. Each penny per gallon increase in the diesel price means an additional $33,000 in spending.
Seeking ways to contain fuel costs, the school board has authorized its superintendent to force students to walk farther to school. The current limits now stand at one mile for elementary school students and up to two miles for high schoolers.
"What if fuel should go up by a quarter in a period of a month or two?" district spokeswoman Kate Harrison said. "We might have to have some emergency response to that."
Small towns are feeling the pinch, too. Short on cash, school officials in Shirley, Mass., a small town about 40 miles northwest of Boston, are going from eight buses to four starting this school year. Students who live within two miles of school must walk, bike or get a ride.
Parents in Shirley are worried about safety and seeking help from WalkBoston. Mary Day said her two sons will have to cross train tracks on their routes to school. To compound the problem, the town recently got rid of its crossing guards to save money.
As a single, working mother, Day said she can drop her children off at school in the morning but cannot pick them up. Her street runs parallel to train tracks and she fears her 9-year-old and 12-year-old sons will be tempted to take shortcuts by darting across the tracks outside the official crossings.
"I remember being a kid," Day said. "Are you going to walk a half-mile down the street to cross in the appropriate way when you see a clear way right there?"
Her youngest son, Quincee, isn't thrilled with the idea of walking, especially when the weather gets cold.
"I don't really like it because it will take 20 minutes to do it," he said.
Since 2005, the federal government has spent millions of dollars on the Safe Routes to School program. While the program is designed to improve student health, school officials sometimes sign on with the secondary goal of saving money.
WalkBoston executive director Wendy Landman said school officials need to consider the consequences before reducing bus service to save money. Communities such as Shirley may need to pay for sidewalks, crosswalks or bike racks to make walking and biking safe and practical.
"When it's a panic call, they're not thinking it through in that way," she said.
When done right, schools and parents can save money.
Helen Siewers' two daughters began walking a mile to their elementary school in Bowling Green City, Ky., because their mother wanted them exercising, socializing with friends and learning to navigate their own community like she did as a child.
But she's noticed an added benefit: Her family has not spent more on gas even as fuel prices soar. It helps that Siewers and her husband also walk to work, bike to their errands and try to keep one of their two cars idle.
"We are not spending more on fuel this year because we're driving less," she said.