Growing evidence points to the need for an urgent response as the changing climate is having an observable impact on communities, students, educators and schools. Providing access to safe, healthy, sustainable and resilient learning environments is a focus of policy makers and school leaders.
In 2020, the United States experienced a record-breaking 22 natural disasters that each resulted in at least $1 billion in damages. Extreme weather events and wildfires have had a devastating impact. In California, in the 2018-19 school year, more than 1 million students were impacted by school closures due to wildfires.
Students and schools in some communities are particularly exposed to climate change impacts. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in August 2021, reported the impacts of the climate crisis disproportionately affects low-income, Black, Indigenous and communities of color.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment stated, “People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts. Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities.”
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, aging buildings are more vulnerable to natural disasters. Schools with higher enrollment of low-income students are far more likely to have facilities that are in poor or only fair condition. Student performance is negatively affected by elevated temperatures in classrooms, and extreme heat days can lead to school closures where facilities are not equipped with air conditioning.
Evidence suggests that hot weather days disproportionately affect students of color and are responsible for approximately 5% of the racial achievement gap.
Learning how to live sustainably in a rapidly changing climate is the goal of the 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan. The plan offers a decision-making framework and recommends strategies for creating sustainable, healthy, resilient and equitable learning environments.
Schools and communities can take important steps now to combat climate change and promote healthy learning environments. Planting trees on school campuses is one such step. Trees lower air temperatures by reducing the amount of heat absorbed and stored by buildings, provide shade, improve air quality and promote outdoor learning. Trees can increase energy efficiency as well. I-Tree Design and the i-Tree Planting Calculator are online tools that help assess the benefits of planting trees at sites. Users can evaluate the overall benefits and the impact on stormwater, energy and air quality. Our City Forest has resources to help communities in central and east San Jose plant trees.
Starting or enhancing school gardens is another step as they have many educational, health and climate benefits. To learn more about school gardens and the Growing Gardens program, go to https://sccoe.to/growinggardens.
Additionally, expanding or starting a program to compost food waste produced at schools reduces short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and redirects organic waste from landfills back to the soil as compost or mulch.
Fostering environmental literacy in children is essential to creating a healthier, more sustainable environment for Santa Clara County students, families and communities. Children are our future leaders who will make decisions that will impact the future health of our planet. When students participate in programs like Walden West and other outdoor environmental education programs, we are empowering them to be environmental stewards.
In Santa Clara County, education leaders and youth are taking meaningful steps to combat the impacts of climate change and to ensure that all students are able to attend sustainable schools that enhance their health and wellness, prepare them for 21st century careers and support a thriving community. Seizing the opportunity to take steps now gives us all hope for a greener future.
San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.