School & District Management

6 Ways Schools Can Prepare for Climate Change—and They Won’t All Break the Bank

By Caitlynn Peetz — March 09, 2023 5 min read
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As the planet warms and the effects of climate change become increasingly clear, schools are beginning to feel the effects, and could be major players in helping communities prepare and cope.

Doing so, though, will take big investments in infrastructure improvements—and soon.

Many schools have dated systems that are contributing to climate problems, rather than solving them, according to a new report released this month that spells out steps schools can take to combat, prepare for, and respond to climate change. This dated infrastructure also puts schools at risk of having to close during heatwaves or periods of other extreme weather, disrupting students’ learning and depriving communities of a central place where residents can seek refuge from extreme conditions.

The report argues that schools play a critical role in combating climate change, because they are also significant contributors. More environmentally friendly technologies—like electric buses and power systems that don’t rely on fossil fuels—could play a crucial role in slowing the climate crisis.

And, the report argues, schools play an important role in helping their communities contend with climate change’s consequences, so they need to be able to keep their doors open—with power on and heating and cooling intact—to play that role.

The report’s authors gave a list of priorities for districts to address climate change.

Use solar technology to power schools, and electrify systems

All indoor infrastructure—including HVAC systems, water heaters, and cooking equipment—should be electrified as soon as possible, ending schools’ dependence on fossil fuel-powered machines that emit greenhouse gases, according to the report.

Schools should also install solar power and battery storage to create more ecofriendly facilities. Doing so would also allow schools to remain open when extreme heat or other dangerous conditions force utility companies to shut down power. Schools could then stay online and operate as community emergency shelters during weather disasters that are becoming more frequent with climate change, the report said.

School bus fleets should be electrified to cut down on diesel emissions, and installing water-efficient plumbing systems can reduce schools’ energy use by up to 15 percent, according to the report.

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Newly installed solar panels in front of Dublin High School are shown on June 18, 2013, in Dublin, Ga.
Newly installed solar panels in front of Dublin High School are shown on June 18, 2013, in Dublin, Ga.
John Bazemore/AP

Go heavy on greenery

Even prioritizing plants on school campuses could make a difference.

With large swaths of concrete and blacktop playgrounds, school sites are often “heat islands”—areas that retain heat and experience higher temperatures than nearby areas.

Reducing the amount of blacktop and replacing it with shade trees and native plants can improve nearby soil water retention—which limits flooding—and reduce the amount of heat emitted from the site.

These are costly endeavors that shouldn’t fall solely to schools, so states should offer financial incentives for districts that commit to the changes, the report suggests.

Use HVAC systems with electric heat pump technology

While there’s little schools can do to immediately affect outdoor air quality, their HVAC systems have a big impact on interior air quality.

Properly installed and well maintained systems filter out airborne pathogens—like those that cause COVID-19—and pollution. The systems also maintain comfortable indoor temperatures when it’s hot outside.

The report suggests districts use HVAC systems with electric heat pump technology, which can help schools save on energy and reduce emissions.

Portable air filters can supplement HVAC systems, as well, the report says.

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Close up of a heat pump against a brick wall

Adopt sustainable construction practices

As districts undertake new building or renovation projects, they should commit to using nontoxic materials that are recycled or “produced in a way that conserves raw materials,” the report says.

The report suggests that schools hire construction companies that use criteria developed by Advanced Energy Design Guides, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), or Emerging Technologies Coordinating Council.

But, the report continued: “To support world-class climate goals … [schools] would need to regard national sustainability criteria as minimum desired baselines, not ultimate standards.”

Staff schools with mental health professionals equipped to navigate climate anxiety

More students are experiencing “climate anxiety”—an EdWeek Research Center Survey last year found 37 percent of teenagers feel anxious when they think about climate change and its effects—and will need more support to manage complex emotions.

Mental health professionals can be difficult to find, but it’s critical districts hire counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses who are climate-literate and trained in trauma-informed care, according to the report.

Districts should develop wellness centers on their campuses to provide routine mental health screenings and support programs, and that can also respond when a student needs mental health support, the report says.

Take a proactive approach to climate education

Schools can better prepare students to pursue college degrees and careers related to sustainability and the green economy by incorporating climate-oriented lessons and discussions throughout the curriculum.

“Instruction that is oriented around problem-based, solutions-focused experiential learning can ensure that students gain multiple opportunities to develop relevant knowledge, values, and skills,” the report says. “...Students report that they rarely learn about climate change specifically, and their opportunities to discuss environmental issues occur mainly in after-school or co-curricular club settings or in Advanced Placement Environmental Science courses in which relatively few students are enrolled.”

Schools can even link the curriculum to ongoing school improvements—like installing community gardens or more ecofriendly water and HVAC systems—which “can transform schools into real-time, hands-on laboratories for climate learning.”

To effectively teach about the climate, educators will need professional development to better hone their climate literacy, the report says.

“To fulfill their mission, our schools must also prepare students to live and lead in a world that is being fundamentally re-shaped by climate change,” the report says.

See Also

Doodles related to green jobs, climate change.
Future of Work Students Want to Know More About Careers in Climate Change—Now
Alyson Klein, January 19, 2023
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