A significant number of parents walked their kids to school from their homes nearby to the front door of the school. Not every family has this option; other neighborhoods in East Oakland experience higher rates of collisions. Credit: Jose Fermoso

After a summer that saw increased attention to Oakland’s dangerous roads, including several fatal collisions, families across the city worried about their children as they returned to school last week. 

“OUSD starts Monday, August 8, and that means intense morning traffic as families figure out their new routines,” Montclair parent Sarah S. pleaded in a Nextdoor post. “Let’s all be patient with each other.” 

When the Oakland Police Department posted a safety alert last week about increased traffic with back to school, Ann Ludwig chimed in about issues near Montclair Elementary. 

“[T]he poor crossing guard has been hit at least one time, and there are many harrowing stories about near misses involving strollers, small children, and others,” she wrote on Nextdoor. “The City seems to have given up…we could use your help!” 

Parents at Franklin, Roosevelt, and Manzanita schools also posted online about being on the lookout for dangerous driving. According to city data, the streets around these campuses east of Lake Merritt have some of the highest rates of collisions in the city. 

Near Fruitvale and Sequoia elementary schools in the Dimond District, parent Reid Allen Williamson said he saw six vehicles run stop signs this week on Champion Street. According to residents there, cars often speed on Harold Avenue after they come off the I-580. 

And in Sobrante Park in deep East Oakland, where students walk to or are dropped off at school, people say the infrastructure is still poorly designed and does little to prevent dangerous driving. 

“Lodestar [a K-5 public school] has been at this site for five or six years, yet there is still not a single sign alerting motorists that it is a school zone or that children are present or crossing,” former Lodestar substitute teacher Mark Fisher told The Oaklandside. 

With these and other concerns top of mind, schools have been trying to work with the city and others to improve safety. 

Schools and police are reminding drivers to slow down. But it’s not enough

In addition to the alert OPD sent over social media last week, the department said they have new plans to slow down cars near schools. 

One is to add more officers near schools surrounded by streets with newly installed 15 mph speed limit signs. The department tells The Oaklandside they’re training more officers to catch reckless drivers using LIDAR, a tool that measures a vehicle’s speed. OPD did not say how many tickets they issued for speeding around schools last week. 

OPD also plans to bring back a traffic enforcement unit to work around schools. Police traffic enforcement was cut in January 2021 due to budget issues. A department spokesperson did not say how they will be able to bring that section back or how much it will cost.

Despite staffing challenges, the city has made changes that could lower collision rates. They added 15 mile-per-hour zones to 12 schools, beating their goal of 10; added two drop-off areas at child development centers; and improved three crosswalks. They also continued redesigning streets around five schools with the Alameda County Transportation Commission, which hosts traffic safety training called Pedestrian Rodeos for schools that request them.

Schools this week also communicated with parents through email and messaging apps about the importance of paying attention to traffic and being safe when picking up and dropping off students. 

Principal Rosana Covarrubias at Bridges Elementary school on 55th Avenue told The Oaklandside her school is asking parents to drop off and pick up kids on only one side of the street to keep traffic flowing. 

“It is important that we follow rules, stay calm, model patience for our children, and be supportive of our traffic system to ensure the safety of everyone,” the school told parents.

Hillcrest Elementary in Montclair has a detailed page about traffic safety on its website, with a separate email for questions.

There is no current city-wide standard about how schools should communicate expectations around traffic safety. 

Covarrubias at East Oakland’s Bridges said that while she is trying her best to help out through the messaging apps, her school still needs basic traffic safety help, including crossing guards. At the moment, there are no guards near the school, including on International Boulevard, where cars constantly speed and illegally use the bus-only lane. 

“We are looking for someone to fill [that position]. It’s a hard sell because the streets are so dangerous. Taking the job puts you at a greater risk of getting seriously injured,” Covarrubias said. 

She added that most people who commit traffic violations in front and near the school are parents picking up and dropping off, with many committing illegal maneuvers like double parking and U-turns. 

The city has faced challenges staffing crossing guards at all of its public schools. As we reported last winter, the process to hire includes background checks and interviews that take as long as five months. The pay is also low and requires availability on a part-time basis. 

Rebuilding streets to make them safe takes time

Sequoia Elementary has asked car-driving parents to safely drop off kids on the school side of the street, creating an impromptu one-way. When most of the traffic subsided in the minutes before school started, The Oaklandside noticed that several cars ignored this request. Credit: Jose Fermoso

In the year of our reporting in-depth on Oakland street issues, parents and teachers have repeatedly pointed out how long it takes to fix streets, even as people continue to be killed or injured due to obvious problems. 

Scared for the children he sees navigating the streets every day, Fisher, the substitute at Lodestar, has been asking city staff since the early spring to improve school signage around Sobrante Park schools. 

On April 12, Fisher emailed the city to point out that children were walking near active train tracks and that intersections like 105th and Edes were especially dangerous, with few lights and usually no police presence. In the last year, two children were hit and hospitalized near those schools. 

Fisher, who previously volunteered as a crossing guard around the school, heard back from the city within a week and was told by the CEO of Lodestar that several schools in the area plan to submit a larger combined proposal.

OakDOT’s new director, Fred Kelley, explained to Fisher that the process takes time due to permitting and legal issues. 

“We need [administrators] to provide input, feedback, and guidance. I would not want to begin any effort to increase safety adjacent to a school setting without the participation of the school principal,” Kelley said in an email to Fisher. 

Sobrante Park Resident Action Council secretary Sylvia Brooks told The Oaklandside the neighborhood group is working with OakDOT, OPD, and other leaders to add traffic calming measures. 

“A lot of students walk to their respective schools or are dropped off by parents. Mixing the school traffic with residents trying to leave for work is a problem,” Brooks said.

OakDOT policy advisor Nicole Ferrara told The Oaklandside the city prioritizes requests on its 311 system coming from school officials. Because city staff time is limited, it’s more efficient for them to talk to people who broadly understand a school’s needs. 

“OakDOT meets with OUSD regularly to discuss these requests. Sometimes OUSD staff can help principals to address issues with operational changes, and sometimes OakDOT will issue work orders to change signs, markings, or curb paint on the street,” Ferrara said.

Parents are taking safety into their hands

Because the city operates on a slower timeline, some parents are coming up with ways to improve children’s safety on their own. 

Parents at Glenview elementary, who have been asking the city to change the design of Park Boulevard to one lane to slow down cars, created a parent safety patrol group to offer additional crosswalk help. 

Using the Konstella app to communicate with each other, four to five parents now patrol the back entrance of the school on most mornings. They bought their own reflective vests and are acting as unofficial volunteers. The parents said that the current official safety patrol, run by the district and featuring some students, looks after the front of the school, but there is usually no additional help on the back side, where most kids are dropped off. 

A parent who preferred The Oaklandside not to publish their name said street safety around Glenview has been a big concern since the death of a father last year on Park Boulevard. 

“It’s been on the minds of a lot of folks in the neighborhood,” they said. 

Parents of kids at Sequoia Elementary School on Lincoln Avenue recently restarted an old neighborhood tradition: walking together in the morning as a large group to ensure drivers see them. 

It’s called the “walking school bus”—or the Squirrel Bus, according to parent Seth Mazow’s daughter, who happens to love squirrels, the school’s mascot. According to Mazow, the idea is to make it a fun activity for kids, get some exercise, and ensure everyone stays safe. 

“We all enjoy the morning socializing and the kids talking and playing together on the walk,” Mazow said. “It is sort of how a lot of us get our in-person interaction for the day.” 

The group walking, however, hasn’t stopped dangerous driving. Last year, Mazow said, a car sped recklessly through the neighborhood while they were gathering at the corner and the children were playing.

“Without even a second of hesitation or braking, they screamed through the stop sign,” Mazow said. “Had we crossed thirty seconds earlier, all of us would’ve been killed or injured. You would’ve been at my kid’s funeral, and I would be devastated like a wreck of a human forever.”

Despite that experience, parents of the Squirrel Bus told us that they feel safer and they love doing it every morning with their kids. 

Another parent told The Oaklandside that when they started walking together, they were supposed to have one parent lead the walk every morning to give other parents a break. But on most days, all parents join. 

“Not everyone has the benefit of living within a mile of their school,” Mazow said. “But it’s something a surprising amount [of people] can do.” 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.