Glacier Valley Elementary School is one of 20 schools nationwide where parents and students will be surveyed about walking and biking to school.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina are conducting the study for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 15 percent of children in the United States are overweight, and American kids are less active than they used to be, said Lisa Sutherland, a UNC researcher who is visiting Glacier Valley this week as part of the study.
"Childhood obesity has tripled over the past 20 years," she said, although children's intake of calories has barely risen. The federal government recommends children get an hour of physical activity a day.
Walking a mile back and forth to school would meet that guideline. But parents can be reluctant to let their children walk to school because they are concerned about highway safety or danger from strangers. In Juneau, parents have added concerns about darkness and unplowed sidewalks in the winter.
"Typically, the (snow) plowing happens really early, but since we're an early starting school, the sidewalks aren't always ready," Glacier Valley Principal Ted Wilson said. "And then it's dark. At 7:30 in the morning, it's really dark."
The study is looking at safety, physical activity and community involvement in walk-to-school programs, and what works and doesn't work.
Oct. 8 is International Walk to School Day this year. Some Juneau schools are expected to participate. Last year all of Juneau's elementary schools joined in the event, in which officials gave out more than 1,000 reflectors, visible from 500 feet, for children to wear on their clothes or backpacks.
As part of her research, Sutherland is talking to public safety, public health, transportation and school officials in Juneau. Glacier Valley parents will be surveyed twice this year on their perceptions of walking to school. The school's fourth- and fifth-graders will be asked twice a month over six months to record how they got to school the previous week. And Sutherland will examine the roads and paths near Glacier Valley school, down to measuring the widths of paved paths and bike lanes.
Sutherland is likely to hear from parents concerned about Mendenhall Loop Road, particularly its intersection with Haloff Way, school staff suggested Monday. It was the site of a collision this summer in which a woman motorist died.
Drivers don't seem to be sure which flow of traffic has the right of way at the intersection, Wilson said. And children don't always use the sidewalk, said physical education teacher Susie Denton.
"I have watched more kids come within a hair of getting hit crossing the (Loop) road," she said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.