A unique opportunity to support student well-being through cycling
When many Americans think of their childhood, we may recall riding a bike, and the joy and freedom that came with it. While this may be a memory shared by those of us in the millennial category and above, it might not be one future generations of Americans will be able to relish. From 2009 to 2017 the number of bike trips taken by youth dropped by over 50%. And only 1.9% of students regularly biked to school in 2022 according to the most recent National Household Travel Survey.
One way to increase the number of youth riding bikes and learning cycling safety is to provide educational opportunities and equipment in schools. Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a federal initiative that aims to do just that by promoting walking and bicycling to school through infrastructure improvements, enforcement, tools, and safety education. While SRTS and other excellent state and local programs exist to provide cycling education and encourage students to bike to school, there isn’t enough funding to allow all students access to these programs and educational opportunities.
For some, it may be a shock to learn that the federal government only provides around 10% of total public school funding. This means that state and local governments — usually through property and other taxes — cover 90% of all public education costs. Despite historically low investment, in 2021 the federal government made its largest single infusion of funding into the country’s public education system to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on American students. This investment provides a unique opportunity to support student well-being through cycling.
What is ARP ESSER?
The largest single investment in public education was part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) signed into law by President Biden in March 2021. This legislation included $122 Billion for the ARP Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). The funds were allocated to states based on their 2020 Title I, Part A allocations — see text box.
The majority of funds (90%) went directly to Local Education Agencies (LEA) or school districts. LEAs must obligate their remaining ARP ESSER funds by September 30, 2024, to be spent by January 2025. This means that school districts must decide how to allocate their remaining funds and spend them before next year, unless the LEA receives an extension from the Department of Education, or they must return the money to the federal government.
Of the money LEAs received, 20% must be used to address lost instructional time, respond to students’ social, emotional, and academic needs, and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups. The remaining funds may be used for a wide range of activities that address needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic.
ARP ESSER funds have a wide range of allowable uses to address the diverse needs arising from or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic including responding to students’ social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs and continuing to provide educational services. Since this bill was signed, the needs of students have shifted from reopening schools and improving indoor air quality. The needs of students today as they deal with the long-term impacts of COVID-19 lean more towards staying active, healthy, and safe — making the case to use ARP ESSER funding for K12 cycling education.
Why Use ARP ESSER Funds on In-School Cycling Education? (Why does cycling matter for students)
Students across the country reported increased mental health struggles due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, students of color, LQBTQ+, and female students reported higher levels of mental distress than their white male peers. In addition, BIPOC students and students with fewer resources were more likely to experience social isolation, the loss of loved ones and household income as a result of the pandemic, further exacerbating negative impacts on their well-being.
The most recent CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2021 showed that 42% of high school students felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row, while 29% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health within 30 days of completing the survey. Physical distancing, social restrictions, and loss of loved ones took a toll on many, but especially on students and other young people who are less equipped to deal with the stress and grief due to their still developing bodies and brains.
The Center for Disease Control recommends that youth ages 6 through 17 complete 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Unfortunately, a 2022 report by the Physical Activity Alliance states that only 21% of American youth meet the CDC recommendation for physical activity. The report also highlights data regarding a cohort of 432,302 U.S. children and youth demonstrating that the rate of body mass index (BMI) increase nearly doubled during the early pandemic (March – November 2020) compared to the years prior (January 2018 – February 2020). In addition to low levels of youth physical activity and increasing BMI rates, the report illustrates an increase in youth obesity rates and details increased youth inactivity as a result of the pandemic.
We know a lack of physical activity can lead to long-term negative health impacts, including obesity, heart disease, and respiratory issues such as asthma. CDC data shows nearly 20% of youth aged 2-19 years have obesity and may experience obesity-related health risks such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, joint issues, and respiratory issues. According to the CDC, asthma and other respiratory illnesses are the leading cause of school absenteeism. And in 2013, the CDC found that children with asthma missed almost 14 million school days.
The pandemic’s toll on youth well-being has not gone unnoticed by adults. A 2022 PEW survey of parents found that their children’s mental health is the top concern for the majority of caregivers. A 2023 survey of school leaders regarding future priorities for ARP ESSER funds found addressing students’ mental health was the third highest priority while student’s physical health ranked 7th among surveyed school leaders.
Title I, Part A of the amended Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides federal funding to states based on the proportion of schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. This Title exists to “… provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.”
Cycling Benefits for Youth
It’s no wonder the CDC encourages youth and adults alike to exercise daily and to stay as active as possible. Regular physical activity helps improve mental health, reduces the risk of obesity, respiratory illness, and other diseases, and improves bone and muscle strength. In short, staying physically active helps people live longer healthier lives.
Cycling is a great way to exercise and stay healthy. Several studies have linked cycling to reduced risk of mortality with one study reporting up to 41% reduction between cyclists and non-cyclists. Cycling has also been shown to positively impact youth mental health and well-being by reducing the effects of stress, depression, and other mental health issues. Bicycling like similar exercises can also improve cognitive function, something that could be useful in a school setting. Not only does cycling improve cognition but it helps students remain in school by improving their health meaning fewer sick days and doctor appointments.
Beyond the physical and mental health benefits, cycling can provide long-term benefits for everyone. In-school cycling education not only improves students’ health but also supports safer cycling for all by educating the next generation of drivers and riders alike. When students receive in-school bike education they are safer when they ride, are aware of the dangers posed to cyclists, and are likely to ride more whether that's for fun or commuting - which ultimately helps combat climate change.
The long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have caregivers and school staff concerned for students' well-being. Prioritizing student mental and physical health can be supported with remaining ARP ESSER funds. As detailed above, cycling is a great way to get students physically active, combat mental health illnesses and symptoms, and keep students in the classroom. Beyond the physical and mental health benefits, cycling is a lifelong activity and a climate-friendly method of transportation.
The League is committed to advocating for greater federal investment in cycling education and safety programs in schools. All children should be able to learn to ride a bike, have safe environments to ride and play, and live in healthy thriving communities. ARP ESSER funds are available right now to support youth cycling in schools and provide a unique opportunity to engage your school district about using these funds. If you want to see how your school district was awarded, explore the data to find out more.