Wildfire smoke in New York. A hurricane — a hurricane — in Los Angeles. Extreme heat in Detroit. The days of a big snowstorm being the only weather-related reason for closing school is now a thing of the distant past.
And with climate change increasingly an underlying cause for interruption learning (or making it harder for kids to learn effectively even when they are in the classroom), organizers working on both environmental and education issues are looking at schools in a new way. With public schools serving so many families across the country, particularly non-white and low-income students, making schools resilient to climate change rather than downright uninhabitable on a too-hot day is vital.
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That’s why the Climate Action Campaign launched its new Extreme Absence School Closure Tracker in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The platform will track school closures related to extreme weather in six states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — where the issue is known to be particularly bad.
The hope is that highlighting how often students miss class because of extreme weather will help spur action around addressing infrastructure issues at schools and creating a more climate-resilient world overall.
As was seen at the beginning of the pandemic, public school infrastructure is often wildly outdated, with classrooms often lacking modern HVAC systems or, in extreme cases, having no cooling and broken windows that won’t open, too.
And with dramatic summer temperatures dragging deep into the school year, even more stress is being put on buildings with inadequate infrastructure — and it’s students and teachers who suffer.
“It’s inhumane and counter to all logic to allow students and educators to sit in 95-degree classrooms, leaving students unable to concentrate on learning or even forcing schools to close due to high heat and humidity levels,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in a release.
New research is giving us a better understanding of how heat, in particular, affects learning. An EPA report released earlier this year estimated that if global temperatures increase by 2 degrees Celsius, there will be a 4% drop in overall learning — for a 4 degree increase, the drop would be 7%. Another study that looked at how temperatures affect test scores found that students are 12% more likely to fail a test when it’s 90 degrees outside compared to a day when it’s 72.
Currently, an estimated 36,000 schools across the country need to update or replace major heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. And to outfit every school in the country with modern air conditioning systems would cost $42 billion. And all of those air conditioners would then be churning out even more carbon emissions.
To truly and sustainably address the climate-resiliency needs of public schools, a plan like Rep Jamaal Bowman’s Green New Deal for Public Schools is needed: the $1.43 trillion plan proposed by the New York congressman (and former public-school principal) would fund completely energy retrofits for the schools that need them most, updating heating and cooling systems but also addressing issues that affect how air-tight buildings are, making them more efficient to both heat and cool.
Not only would such retrofitted schools be less likely to be closed due to extreme weather, but they would also be more comfortable, healthier learning environments. The upgrades proposed by the bill would help address climate change overall, too: electrifying heating systems, replacing windows and insulations, fixing drafts, and other measures would eliminate 78 million tons of carbon emissions annually, the equivalent of getting 17 million cars off of the streets.