By Srishti Prabha
The night of Jan. 8, howling winds and driving rain battered the Sacramento region. Kim McDaniel and her daughters were prepping for the first day of school in the new year when they received Sacramento City Unified School District’s message that its campuses would close.
“I was feeling grateful that I didn’t have to navigate and drive through such dangerous conditions,” said McDaniel, a McClatchy High School parent. When the storms calmed, she and her daughters drove through the streets of Sacramento taking in the carnage.
“Every turn there was something as dramatic as the turn before,” McDaniel said, and she felt her daughters come to the realization that the climate crisis was at their doorstep. “This is worse than we thought: My neighbor’s roof is leaking. Our yard is flooded.”
Heat waves, wildfires, and now atmospheric rivers are molding the Sacramento landscape. Families like McDaniel’s are grappling with school closures, intermittent power outages, and destroyed infrastructure.
Experts suggest that California schools will have to build a climate-based curriculum, add provisional days to the academic calendar and equip students with strategies to cope with the regularity of catastrophic events. Otherwise, akin to the pandemic, students will experience repercussions resulting from inconsistent access to classroom structures, as well as learning loss, heightened achievement gaps and mental health episodes. Lower-income students of color will continue to be disproportionately affected, widening the opportunity gap.
Education and the Climate Crisis
Unsurprisingly, a student’s initial response to an unscheduled day off from school is glee.
“I’m not going to lie to you, being home for this one last day felt outstanding,” said William Smothers Jr. III, a John F. Kennedy High School student.
But upon further reflection, Smothers delved into the difficulties presented by the storm while preparing for his upcoming finals.
“I’m kind of nervous for them,” said Smothers. “Schools should be more supportive because we are currently in a weird time where it’s just horrible. And it’s just every single day.”
And with the added climate unpredictability, Smothers’ dad, William Smothers Jr., said he’s worried for his two sons.
“It definitely affects them because it takes them out of the rhythm of going to school or being in a routine because they’ve been cut off so many times,” he said.
Alexander Goldberg, Sacramento City Unified School District’s communications manager, said he recognizes this emerging apprehension.
“I think with any kind of inconsistency, there’s always a concern for students on how they’re receiving education and learning loss,” he said. “So every day is vital.”
Goldberg said the district will evaluate how to manage the fallout from the evolving weather, heat waves and wildfires that have disrupted academic schedules in the past six months.
SCUSD currently uses a tiered approach with natural disasters in which the first priority is providing basic needs.
“First and foremost, ‘Are you safe? Do you have housing?’” said Victoria Flores, the district’s director of student support and health services. She said that even with building closures during the recent storms, the district provided 1,500 meals to students who rely on schools as a source for meals.
The second tier involves using behavioral data to identify high-risk students who may require additional support.
In California, around 1,600 schools closed due to wildfires between 2019-2020. In Sacramento, the recent atmospheric rivers impacted 107 schools in one day.
A 2022 policy report released by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) noted key considerations for climate change impacts on K-12 education. The report factors in school closures from five climate hazards: extreme heat, drought, wildfires, erosion and increased risk of floods. It recommends avoiding disruptions to schooling because, the LAO states, closures can place students at “higher risk of experiencing learning loss and poorer academic outcomes.” The report adds that following traumatic climate-related closures, “students may experience mental health impacts, which also can affect their ability to learn.”
With fewer resources and a possible void in childcare access, low-income students become most vulnerable in the event of school closure, the report suggests.
Shannon Scott is a Black hair salon owner and a mother of four children – a 6-month old, and a 4, 12 and 16-year-old. When SCUSD schools closed their doors, so did the region’s daycares. Scott’s two youngest children had to stay home and she had to cancel her clients for the day.
“If I don’t work, I don’t eat,” she said. “That means no pay for the day.”
Scott said she intentionally sought out Fortune Charter Schools for her older children. Fortune’s mission is to support Black parents and Black excellence and their campuses remained open during the recent storms. Scott said she felt that was necessary for her community.
“They’re providing an environment where the kids can come to school so the parents can continue to go to work,” she said.
Families suffer from eco-anxiety
Like McDaniel and Smothers Jr., Scott said her underlying concern is rooted in threats to her children’s mental health.
“If the kids cannot come to school, they should be able to take a mental health day,” she said. “They shouldn’t be penalized for it.”
Dr. Nicole Stelter, director of behavioral health for Blue Shield of California, defined eco-anxiety as “perceptions and worries” from observing the irrevocable impact of climate change and the resulting feeling of hopelessness. Anxiety about missing instructional time is compounded with the arising lesser-known mental health symptom eco-anxiety.
Kylie Huang, a 17-year old Mira Loma High student, concurs. “Now, seeing how much the climate has shifted and weather patterns are drastically changing, it’s really nerve wracking.” she said. “You feel like there’s nothing that you can do about it.”
Between 2020 and 2022, Stelter’s peers at Blue Shield conducted a national Youth Climate and Mental Health survey with 1,300 young people between ages 14-24, 369 of whom were based in California. The study revealed an explicit connection between physical health, mental health and the environment, with 75% of those surveyed in California experiencing at least one health issue related to an environmental event.
Stelter and her peers found that Huang’s emotions are not anomalous.
“Whether we’re talking about wildfires, heat waves, severe weather, flooding, I think the extremes and then the continuation can really feel overwhelming,” says Stelter. “When it’s right there interrupting my day to day, not just for young people, but their parents and communities, it has a pretty pervasive impact.”
Flores, from the SCUSD districts, says that the education system acts as a microcosm of the larger community it serves, and is not devoid of race and income inequities. The Blue Shield survey finds that nearly half of Black youth say that, in the United States, the climate crisis and racial injustice go hand in hand. And more than 4 in 5 Black youth say there is not enough discussion around how climate change impacts Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Dr. Robin Cooper, an associate clinical professor at the UC San Francisco and president of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, says she considers young people’s loss of innocence and how to mitigate this.
“Don’t let kids jump in the rain puddles? The giving up of those delights of childhood represent a kind of grieving,” said Cooper.
She said the term to describe this is solastalgia – an intense grieving for places and experiences that used to bring us solace. And there are many ways it penetrates.
Keeping a pulse on the families in the SCUSD network, Goldberg from the district hears a similar narrative: “We’re losing like all these iconic trees. I see these stories on social media where people saying, ‘Oh, I passed this tree every day.’ It was sentimental attachment.”
Cooper says she and her alliance inform the state’s climate and mental health policy, training, educational materials and curriculum.
“It has to be seen, the massive kinds of stresses the kids have been under from gun violence to isolation and COVID and how education has been impacted by that and fueled by the climate crisis,” she said. “They all intersect and weave together. So we have to think about this and address it in the multiplicity of ways. And parents are scared about that. And kids are also.”
For older youth, she says she suggests actionable items such as empowering them to make climate mitigation efforts in their surrounding communities.
Huang says she agrees with this. “I still feel optimistic that there is a way that we can help turn the tide. In my environmental club, we’ve had a lot of discussions about how we can help make change by ourselves, like not just recycling, but also being able to reuse things, helping to reduce waste in landfills and choosing more sustainable options.”
For young children, Cooper says she suggests introducing them to their natural environment and explaining how harm could come to them.
“Books and stories have long been a way to help children grapple with their big fears,” Cooper advises. “They are powerful tools to help children to put their worries into words thereby helping them to tolerate and manage feelings, to open conversations with children in a non-threatening way, to contain their anxieties and diminish the sense that they are alone.”
Cooper says she suggests that schools and parents collaborate on ways to communicate heavy topics like the climate crisis. Avoidance isn’t the appropriate strategy, she says. They should be introduced to these topics, but in appropriate ways.
“Kids think concretely. They distort ideas and they’re not able to detach,” she said. “So for a kid to say to his mom, ‘Am I going to die? When is the world going to die?’ That’s really concrete and really scary.”
Here’s a sample list of books for kids in 4th grade or above:
- Coco’s Fire: Changing Climate Anxiety into Climate Action by Jeremy D. Wortzel & Lena K. Champlin, and The Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry Climate Committee
- Fur and the Feather Stand Together by David Griswold
- How Charlie, His Great Grandfather and SuperMax Saved the World by Climate Psychiatry Alliance Steering Committee member, Stephen Peterson, MD
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