A new school year for students in the Indian River School District also means enhanced concerns over traffic and pedestrian safety.
But this year, officials say they are taking extra precautionary measures due to an increase in student numbers as Indian River delves into its first year of full-day kindergarten.
The increase is not expected to be nominal, according to district spokesman Dave Maull. Last year, the district's kindergarten roster totaled 790 and this year's expected enrollment is 836.
"However, at any one time, we were only accommodating half of them; half in the morning and half in the afternoon," Maull said. "The challenge this year is all the students will be in the school at the same time."
That means those students will be arriving and leaving at the same time, too.
Georgetown Elementary School is expecting an increase of 200 students this year and Georgetown Middle School, located in the same complex on W. Market Street, is expecting an increase of 100 students. The district has made drastic traffic pattern changes at the complex, moving school buses to the west side of the building and changing the way parents enter and leave the schools. Parents were notified of the changes during open houses.
The goal, according to Preston Lewis, administrator of student services, is to prevent major traffic congestion on West Market Street.
"Last year, traffic was backed up all the way through town, to The Circle and beyond, and also on the west side, across [U.S.] Route 113 and a little bit on [Del.] Route 9," Lewis said, adding changes were necessary as more parents are expected to drop their children off for kindergarten. "Of course our number one goal is to make sure every student is safe from the time they step foot on this property in the morning until they leave in the afternoon."
The Georgetown Police Department will be assisting with traffic direction and will ramp up patrols throughout the year.
"Our guys patrol the schools in the morning and the afternoon," said Georgetown Police Lt. Lawrence Grose. "If we get complaints about speeding or reckless driving in the area, we will usually post a marked patrol car in the area to monitor these concerns. We have five schools in Georgetown and the kids' safety is our main concern."
The Indian River School District has 15 schools located throughout Georgetown, Millsboro, Frankford, Ocean View, Selbyville and Dagsboro. The new school year has over 160 school buses traveling throughout the district and countless students who live within a one mile radius of an IRSD institution walking to and from school. Officials are urging motorists to exercise extreme precaution.
According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, the 2012 school year in Delaware saw 129 traffic crashes involving a school bus with 54 school bus occupants being injured. The year before, there were 128 school bus crashes with 45 occupants injured.
Page 2 of 2 - According to the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were a total of 4,432 pedestrian fatalities nationwide in 2011, with the 14-and-younger age group accounting for 230 of those fatalities. During that year, 43 percent of fatalities among pedestrians 14 and younger occurred between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Matthew Eskridge, traffic safety manager for the AAA Mid-Atlantic Foundation for Safety and Education, said heading back-to-school is an exciting time for children. Unfortunately, he added, children are unpredictable and not always mindful of traffic safety.
"Children may have difficulty gauging the distance and speed of an approaching car, and may struggle to recognize and react to potentially hazardous situations," Eskridge said. "Motorists are reminded to be extra alert, slow down and observe lower speed limits in school zones and residential areas, as children gather at neighborhood bus stops or are walking to and from school. Parents and caregivers are also reminded to instruct their children in traffic rules and safety."
Cpl. Gary Fournier of the Delaware State Police said school resource officers assigned to various school districts will brief bus drivers and students alike on safety at bus stops and while riding down the road.
"Troopers will also conduct periodic patrols in various districts as a safety and preventative measure to deter passing stopped school busses," Fournier said.
By state law, drivers traveling in either direction on a two-lane road must stop when a school bus activates its flashing lights and stop sign. Anyone convicted of passing a stopped school bus can be fined as much as $230 for the first offense and as much as $575 for the second offense. Violators could also have their license suspended for between one and 12 months.