Elementary and middle school students throughout Riverside County will forgo riding to school Wednesday in recognition of “International Walk to School Day” — part of an effort to promote youth exercise and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Thousands of youths from more than 80 schools are expected to take part in the annual event, during which parents, teachers and community-based volunteers form “walking school buses” to shepherd children to their campuses, according to the Riverside University Health System, one of the agencies organizing the outing.

The walks will generally begin about 7 a.m.

“This is just one day, but we are hopeful the community will see the benefits of walking and biking to school and make it an everyday habit,” said Kim Saruwatari, RUHS Public Health Division director. “It’s the healthy choice, instead of driving to school.”

According to county officials, grade schools in the Coachella Valley, the San Gorgonio Pass and the western county region have all arranged mass walks.

In some locations, public safety personnel will provide escorts, joined by elected officials and members of their staff.

According to organizers, walking programs promote a reduction in childhood obesity and underscore the importance of pedestrian access and safety on public rights of way.

“International Walk to School Day kicks off a year-long effort to create sustainable walking and biking programs to improve fitness, air quality and traffic flow around schools, which increases student safety,” according to an RUHS statement.

More information is available at www.rivcoips.org, or at www.facebook.com/RivCoSafeRoutesToSchool/ .

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