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As a pediatrician in California, Dr. Lisa Patel has seen firsthand how climate change is impacting children. She’s treated severely dehydrated newborns, children whose asthma was exacerbated by wildfires, and heat-related illnesses brought on by sports games and practices.
Those are some of the reasons that prompted Patel to co-author a recently released report pushing to make schools in California more resilient to climate change.
“We are just at a point where we can’t fix every part of our society as quickly as we need to to keep kids safe,” said Patel, who is also a clinical associate professor at Stanford University. “We need to be targeted, and, after their homes, kids spend the second most [amount of] time in their schools.”
The report, compiled by researchers, advocates and medical professionals, argues that not investing in schools hurts children from both a public health and an education standpoint, with climate change bringing added urgency.
For Patel, this issue is a personal one, too.
“I got into this, frankly, not as a pediatrician or even an environmental scientist; I came into this as a parent,” she said. “I have two young kids myself, who are 5 and 7, and my daughter goes to school without an HVAC system. I know what that data is on the wildfire smoke, and I don’t want my child breathing these noxious fumes when I know we have the tools to make her school safer.”
As the report points out, a 2020 study found the majority of California public schools had problems with their HVAC systems, with only 15 percent meeting the ventilation standard set by the state. HVAC systems are especially important during wildfire season, when smoke significantly decreases air quality. Wildfire smoke is up to 10 times more toxic to children than other forms of air pollution.
Other issues the report highlights include a lack of air conditioning in a state where heat waves are now more frequent and more days hit a 90 degree heat index due to climate change.
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All this doesn’t just harm student health — contributing to asthma and exacerbating other respiratory illnesses — but impairs their ability to learn. A recent analysis published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Sustainability linked wildfire smoke exposure to a drop in standardized test scores. One study from 2020 also found a correlation between extreme heat and lower test scores for Black and Latino students. One reason researchers pointed to was that their schools were more likely to lack air conditioning compared with those of their White peers. Schools across the country are also having to close more frequently due to extreme heat, as reported by The Washington Post.
There are around 11,000 K-12 public schools in California, and their conditions vary widely. Lower-income students generally attend schools where buildings and playgrounds haven’t been upgraded in years, or where deferred maintenance has left them more vulnerable to climate events.
“Given the variation in quality and the inequities of the school facilities statewide and these new responsibilities around climate resiliency and climate mitigation, the state really needs to take a more proactive role and be more strategic in how they look at this issue,” said Jeffrey Vincent, director of the Public Infrastructures Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley.
Investing in schools wouldn’t just help students adapt to the climate crisis, but their communities as a whole, Vincent said.
“Schools play a number of local roles in their community when there is a climate hazard,” he said. “Kitchens are used for food prep and food distribution centers. When families or households are displaced they may sleep in the schools or gymnasium.” First responders will often stage at schools as well, because they can accommodate fire trucks and ambulances, he added.
Jonathan Klein, co-author of the report and the co-founder of UndauntedK12, a nonprofit focused on decarbonizing schools, also sees targeting school infrastructure as a way to lower carbon emissions in the United States.
“Schools are big infrastructure and big energy users, and therefore, significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions,” Klein said. “In terms of a broader climate strategy, and the transition to clean energy that we need to make, school should be some of the first places we do that work. Because that’s where young people are: 1 in 6 Americans is on a school campus every day.”
One of the main recommendations of the report is that state leaders develop a master plan for schools. “[It would] essentially acknowledge that conditions have changed and are changing in schools. It is hotter, it is drier, it is smokier and our school grounds are not prepared for that,” Klein said.
The plan would also lay out what steps school districts should take to both make schools more resilient to climate change and less of a contributor to carbon emissions. For example, if a school was considering upgrading its HVAC system, a master plan would probably recommend it move to electric heat pumps, which have lower carbon emissions and are better for air quality.
The report recommends that the state invest $15 billion a year in school infrastructure over the next decade; this is over double the $7 billion it currently spends.
New funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law in August and dedicates approximately $370 billion to fighting climate change, can ease the clean energy transition for schools, Klein said. Schools are eligible for tax credits that can reduce the cost of solar panel installations, battery storage and heat pumps by 30 to 50 percent.
“We have to elevate this issue because it is an emergency for kids,” Klein said. “School is where kids spend more of their waking hours than anywhere else. We need to make sure that the resources and attention are aligned with the magnitude of the issue that we’re facing.”