On days in September, March, and May, students on every continent around the globe, including thousands across the U.S., walked out of their classrooms, demanding climate action. The climate strikes are inspired by a 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who has been protesting weekly.

The fact that climate change is increasing is supported by studies of public health, climate conditions, and school performance. Rarely does a day go by without reports of fires in the west, flooding in the middle of the country, warmer winters, less snow in the north, rising water levels in coastal communities, and fierce hurricanes on our eastern coast.

Whether (pun intended) you believe that climate change is caused by humans or is a recurring natural phenomenon, we must be concerned about the possible effects. They include the continued warming of our atmosphere and the increased intensity of drought, storms, and other “once in a century (or a millennium) events” around the world.

The Union of Concerned Scientists stated that the number of days with a heat index (a measure of how hot it really feels when relative humidity is factored with the actual air temperature) above 100 degrees Fahrenheit could more than double by midcentury.

Hotter, wetter, and burning up

The past four years were the hottest on record, and, unfortunately, we’re just warming up. The United Nations’ 2010 Framework on Climate Change stated that to “prevent interference with the climate system, the scientific view is that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees F].” A 2018 report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urges world leaders to go further and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C to avoid serious climate impacts to people, ecosystems, and economies. That doesn’t give us much room for error.

According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the U.S. is projected to be an average of 2.5 degrees F hotter by mid-century and 5 to 8 degrees hotter by the end of the century. In 2050, most of the country can expect 20-30 more days per year with temperatures over 90 degrees F, and heat waves will average 11 degrees F hotter.

Rising temperatures mean other imminent changes, like sea level rise (with an expected 6 to 14 inches increase in sea levels by 2050), stronger inland rainstorms, warmer oceans, and more intense and more frequent hurricanes. In coastal communities, higher tides can block roads to schools, while hurricanes can close schools for weeks, as we saw in the hurricane seasons of 2017 and 2018.

Schools in Texas were criticized for staying open as storm Imelda neared the Houston area in September. In 2018, Hurricane Michael closed schools in Florida, some for over a month, and local media outlets reported that the school enrollment dropped as affected people moved from their communities. 

Numerous studies have documented the stress, depression, and trauma caused by displacement from homes following climate disasters, and children are most affected. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, NBC News reported that 96 percent of the Rockland, Texas, school district experienced homelessness.

The Northeast is not immune from the effects of hurricanes, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy, deemed a “superstorm” because it had the characteristics of both a nor’easter and a hurricane. At least 150 people were killed in the U.S. and damage was estimated at $70 billion. The storm shuttered thousands of schools, according to Education Week. In New York City alone, according to chalkbeat.org, 200 school buildings were damaged.

Coastal communities are not the only ones affected. According to the Pew Research Center, 4 million students attend the 6,000 public schools in floodplains. While hurricanes grab headlines, flooding in the Midwest increases danger inland. In the same way that temperature extremes will increase even more than temperature averages, precipitation also is expected to increase up to 20 percent in the northern U.S. Future extreme precipitation will produce 40 percent more rain than what we consider to be extreme now.

Warmer air and changing precipitation patterns also create conditions for wildfire. The National Climate Assessment states that the areas burned by forest fire were doubled by climate change from 1984 to 2015. According to a CALmatters count of school closure announcements, California’s 2018 wildfires, the costliest and deadliest to date, caused 180 school districts to cancel classes due to air quality or physical damage, impacting 18 percent of the states’ total public school enrollment.

We also can expect regionally specific changes like melting permafrost in Alaska and saltwater seeping into drinking water in low-lying coastal areas, such as in Florida.

A Changing Climate Affects Students

A 2018 study from the College Board, Georgia State University, Harvard, and UCLA found that heat exposure can reduce learning and skill formation, and limits academic achievement. This means growing temperatures could depress academic performance, with a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic students. The study found that, on average, a 1 degree F hotter school year prior to taking the PSAT resulted in about 1 percent lower test scores.

The study is not conclusive on what is causing this decrease in academic performance, but heat seems to affect how students learn. Hotter temperatures while students were learning versus studying for the test appeared to have a greater impact on test scores. Additionally, heat might impact the performance of instructors.

The researchers found that these effects are not experienced equally across the country because, on average, African-American and Hispanic students attend schools in areas 5 degrees warmer than in schools attended by white students. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, cities can be an additional 1.8 to 5.4 degrees F hotter than surrounding areas in the day, and as high as 22 degrees hotter in the evening, making inner cities even hotter.

Effects from the heat, according to the study, may account for up to 13 percent of the PSAT achievement gaps between white students and African-American and Hispanic students: the national racial achievement gap.

Predominantly African-American and Hispanic schools report 3.5 percent lower air conditioning penetration than areas with fewer students of color. One example: New York City’s Department of Education reported that “about 13,000 public school classrooms still lacked air conditioning.”

In addition, heat and wildfire can impact air quality, thereby worsening asthma and other respiratory conditions of students, teachers, and others. These issues are of great concern in our inner cities.

According to an Education Week article, air conditioning in the schools reduces the effects of heat by 80 percent. Large cities are setting air conditioning targets for their schools, like New York City’s pledge to provide air conditioning for every classroom by 2022. Maintaining cool classrooms will cost more as temperatures rise. Some of the cost may be mitigated due to lower heating costs, depending on where buildings are located.

What is a resilient school?

To answer this question, we asked architects and construction companies who work with schools on handling these changes.

“Our profession has been focused on the idea of resiliency in building and site design as a response to climate change. It’s about making sure that we can mitigate and recover quickly from storms and other events that may impact communities. I can’t say that our work has been significantly impacted much yet, but that is changing,” says James LaPosta of JCJ Architecture, which has offices across the country.

While designing a Massachusetts elementary school, the firm moved mechanical equipment to a higher level because of concern over future flooding from a nearby river. “The initial design was compliant with current flood zone regulations but in our meetings with the client there was concern that, as a coastal community, the flooding could be worse in the future,” says LaPosta.

As districts increase the use of their buildings into the summer months and year-round, they are opting for full air conditioning. “The trend is definitely in the direction of better air quality and thermal comfort,” he says.

Districts focus on energy and water efficiency for school designs to reduce their carbon footprint and preserve water resources. “An energy-efficient school building, if new, begins with optimal solar orientation to control solar gain as well as a high-performance building envelope, coupled with energy-efficient mechanical systems,” says Kemp A. Morhardt of The S/L/A/M Collaborative.

“We’ve designed school buildings that operate on geothermal principles where the building’s entire heating/cooling plant is obtained through a ground-coupled water loop taking advantage of the earth’s year-round moderated temperature (around 55 degrees F). We have also incorporated photovoltaic arrays to generate electricity from sunlight to help offset electricity purchased from the grid.”

Other sustainable strategies include:

  • Daylighting, which maximizes the use of natural light to minimize the use of artificial lighting and reduce electrical consumption;
  • Low-flow plumbing fixtures, landscape plantings that require little to no irrigation and rainwater collection to reduce water consumption;
  • Providing bike racks and shower/changing facilities to promote bicycling to work;
  • Providing dedicated parking spaces for carpool vehicles and ultra-low-emission vehicles;
  • Providing electric car charging ports;
  • High-reflectivity roofing to reduce heat island effect; and
  • Planting trees, which cools buildings, soaks up floodwaters, and has been linked to improved academic performance in some studies.

Resilient school design and construction may be incrementally more expensive up front but can pay off in energy savings and damages avoided over time. School districts also can check their insurance coverage, and line up contractors to do repairs before a disaster hits. Other states may look to the example of the Florida School Boards Insurance Trust that gives almost immediate access to a fund for hiring contractors pre-identified by the trust in the time of a disaster.

We do not know quite what the coming decades hold, but we know the climate has changed in the past century and will continue to do so. The children in school today will live in a very different world than we do now. Decisive climate action can make that world safer, more productive, and more livable. In the meantime, it is up to local governments, including boards of education, to help prepare their communities, their staff, and their students for this new world, and to ensure students have access to education and the opportunity to learn and thrive in a changing climate.

Will your schools be ready?

Robert Rader (rrader@cabe.org) is the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. Kristiane Huber is a resilience fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington, Virginia.

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