About 20 students circled Cameron Elementary School’s gymnasium on bicycles, the multi-colored helmets on their heads gleaming in the glare of fluorescent lights.
Treaded rubber wheels glided over hardwood floors as the riders navigated calf-high orange traffic cones arranged in an grid that spanned the entire gym.
Every so often, cyclists broke away from the main outer loop to cut through the grid, their routes dictated by blue arrows and orange lane markers as well as yield and stop signs poking out of a handful of the cones.
As they picked up speed, some students threatened to careen out of control, though they usually managed to brake or course-correct in time to avoid any actual collusions. A few bikers cut corners too closely and found themselves entangled in a cluster of traffic cones.
The biking and road safety activity unfolded three times Tuesday afternoon with three different physical education classes, a practice run for what will become more of a curriculum staple at the Alexandria school starting this spring.
Cameron Elementary School is one of 12 Fairfax County elementary and middle schools that will receive a permanent set of bicycles and helmets within the next one to two months, thanks to a $164,000 grant from health insurance provider Innovation Health to Fairfax County Public Schools’ Safe Routes to School program.
“It was very exciting for us when we first heard about it,” FCPS elementary health and physical education specialist Becky Howery said regarding Innovation Health’s donation. “…Being able to put more bikes in the schools and have more teachers be able to instruct the program has been an amazing opportunity for our students.”
Announced by the Foundation for FCPS on Mar. 15, Innovation Health’s financial contribution covers the cost of bicycles and helmets for seven elementary schools and five middle schools, as well as the construction of two storage sheds, one for the elementary school equipment and one for the middle schools.
Lake Anne, Saratoga, Cameron, North Springfield, Rolling Valley, Chesterbrook, and Colin L. Powell Elementary Schools will each receive 30 bicycles and 60 helmets, while Glasgow, Hayfield, Liberty, Powell, and Rocky Run Middle Schools will get 40 bikes and 40 helmets.
FCPS launched the Safe Routes to School program in 2014 through its safety and security office, which sought to encourage students to utilize active transportation such as walking or biking when traveling to and from school.
The program later moved to the health and P.E. office when it expanded with the acquisition of enough bicycles and helmets to serve 14 elementary schools and six middle schools per year.
While all FCPS elementary schools and middle schools participate in the Safe Routes to Schools program, the bicycle fleet had to be transported between campuses, limiting the extent to which different schools could actually access the equipment at a given time.
Innovation Health reached out to FCPS in December looking to find a recipient for funds that it had received in 2017 and needed to give to a community initiative by the end of the fiscal year.
School district officials suggested a list of programs that they wanted to expand, and Safe Routes to School quickly stood out as an ideal fit.
“It was a program that fulfilled our mission at Innovation Health,” Innovation Health chief medical officer Sunil Budhrani said. “One of our missions is obviously keeping the better health of our membership and the community, and also specifically, we have an interest in combatting childhood obesity.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five school-age children from 6 to 19 years old in the U.S. has obesity, which is defined as having excess body fat as most commonly measured by body mass index.
In addition to carrying a social stigma that can affect children’s mental health and self-esteem, childhood obesity has been linked to an increased risk of chronic health conditions and diseases, such as asthma, sleep apnea, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease, according to the CDC.
Budhrani says that Innovation Health, which is a partnership between the nonprofit health network Inova and insurance provider Aetna, is working to time the deployment of its additions to FCPS’s bike fleet to coincide with National Nutrition Month and National Bike to School Day.
National Nutrition Month occurs every March as an annual campaign organized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to raise awareness about “the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits,” according to the academy’s website.
Innovation Health’s grant will allow about 400 students to participate in National Bike to School Day, which is on May 9 this year, according to FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand.
“Innovation Health’s collaborative approach is to be lauded,” Brabrand said. “By supporting an existing FCPS program, we’re moving from possibilities to pedaling really quickly.”
Supported by partnerships with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation and the Fairfax County Police Department, Safe Routes to School focuses on teaching children the basics of road etiquette and safety, including the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street and how to use hand signals when riding a bike.
However, for some students, the school program is their first encounter with biking. FCPS Safe Routes to School coordinator Sally Smallwood says that about 10 to 20 percent of the students she meets on a regular basis had never ridden a bicycle before.
By helping familiarize children with biking and teaching them how to be safe when traveling, FCPS hopes to encourage students and parents to find alternatives to driving.
“Environmentally, it’s not the best thing to have that many cars coming through kiss-and-ride and leaving pollutants, but the most important thing is how much better it is for a child,” Smallwood said. “…Kids nowadays are driven almost everywhere they go, and most trips are less than two miles long, which is just a 10-minute bike ride, so where it’s safe to ride, we want kids to ride or walk.”
Though the new bicycles and helmets will not arrive for another month or so, Cameron Elementary School students in fourth through sixth grades spent the past two weeks trying out FCPS’s existing bike fleet during their regular P.E. classes.
Cameron Elementary P.E. teacher Kristen Bogacki says that she has been impressed by how quickly the students who did not previously know how to ride a bike have picked up the skill.
Once the new bikes are ready, she plans to incorporate them into her regular curriculum, which highlights fitness components such as muscle strength and cardio-respiratory endurance.
“The students have loved it. They’ve been enthusiastic since the beginning,” Bogacki said. “…Riding a bike is a life skill that all children deserve the opportunity to learn, and it gives them another means of getting around. It’s just a healthy option for them.”