School & District Management

Disrupted Learning and Health Woes: Climate Change Impacts Educators Should Brace For

By Madeline Will & Mark Lieberman — May 09, 2023 8 min read
Image of a group of children holding up a planet outdoors
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America’s children are poised to face a wide range of health challenges as a result of climate change, and schools have a significant role to play in addressing those impacts.

That’s the takeaway from a report released last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that outlines five major health risks for children associated with a projected rise in the global temperature. The EPA’s office of atmospheric protection synthesized existing research with emerging models that show the impact of climate change to make projections about the scale of the challenges K-12 students will endure.

The report paints a troubling picture of how children’s health and well-being will be affected as temperatures rise and air quality worsens. Climate change is also expected to lead to increased coastal flooding, more pollen exposure, and an uptick in infectious diseases—all of which will harm children’s health.

Children of color will suffer the most, the report says.

These issues are becoming increasingly difficult for school district leaders to ignore. And the American public broadly agrees that schools need to be actively involved in the fight against climate change in the classroom and beyond, according to a nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted in March by the Center for Sustainable Futures and The Public Matters Project at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Eighty-five percent of respondents said they somewhat or strongly agree that schools should install solar panels and source food from local providers. Three-quarters said schools should replace diesel buses with more energy-efficient electric equivalents. And three-quarters also said marginalized communities should be prioritized in schools’ climate change efforts.

There are some sources of federal funding available for districts for some of this work. The two national teachers’ unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—and This Is Planet Ed, an initiative from the Aspen Institute, recently released an educator advocacy toolkit for climate solutions, which points to resources and shares talking points for district leaders.

Meanwhile, overwhelming majorities of respondents—including a majority who identified as politically conservative—said schools should teach children how to identify climate change misinformation, prepare children for unexpected school closures caused by severe weather, and help children understand which nations are most responsible for climate change.

Lin Andrews, the director of teacher support for the National Center for Science Education, said the findings from the EPA report provide a good foundation for teachers to incorporate climate change into their curriculum. It adds meaning and purpose to the lessons when students understand what’s at stake, she said.

Also, teaching about the very real health conditions exacerbated by climate change is likely to be less controversial or divisive than talking about climate change in the abstract, Andrews added.

“Things like the health of our children, that is always a huge driver for our parents, and our kids take that information to their parents,” she said. “We’ve seen time and again that student-driven initiatives are more likely to propel change in parents than anything a teacher will say.”

See Also

Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox hold a sign together and chant while participating in a "Global Climate Strike" at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Across the globe hundreds of thousands of young people took the streets Friday to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a U.N. summit.
Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox participate in a Global Climate Strike at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., in September 2019.
Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP

The EPA report looks at how increases in the global average temperature of 2 and 4 degrees Celsius would affect children. The former is the widely accepted number of degrees the global temperature can rise before the worst consequences of climate change become virtually inevitable. A 4-degree Celsius rise would be a much more severe scenario—albeit one that scientists warn could happen if countries don’t do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are the five major health risks for children associated with climate change.

Extreme heat hurts both student learning and well-being

The school year is already getting hotter, with several states and cities seeing record temperatures starting in the spring and stretching into September. Many schools don’t have air conditioning units that are equipped to cope with sweltering heat, leaving schools to decide between closing school on especially hot days or letting students sweat next to box fans.

A body of research has found that heat makes it harder for students to learn, and students perform worse on tests when they’re hot. According to the EPA report, that’s for several reasons: Cognitive function declines during excessive heat, leading to slower reaction times; heat affects the ability to sleep well at night; and students might skip school on extremely hot days, especially if their school isn’t air-conditioned. (They might also fall asleep in class.)

Children are also at greater risk of developing anxiety or depression because of the heat. Doctors say heat can make people more impulsive and less able to regulate their behavior, meaning students might act out more during hot days, and bullying could increase. And there are physical health risks, too.

See Also

With only open windows and fans to cool the room down, students enter their non-air-conditioned classroom at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, on Aug. 3, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, and record-high temperatures have left teachers and students saying they can't focus because of the heat. Hawaii lawmakers are saying it's time to cool Hawaii's public schools. A proposal being considered by the House Committee of Finance would fund air conditioning for Hawaii Department of Education schools and expedite the process to get cooling systems installed in classrooms.
Only open windows and fans cooled the room as students arrived at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, in August, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, even as research shows that heat can depress student learning.
Marco Garcia/AP

The EPA report projects that by the time global temperatures increase by 2 degrees Celsius, the average maximum daily temperature during the school year will reach 69.7 degrees Fahrenheit—associated with a 4 percent reduction in learning, translating to the average student losing $1,300 in future annual income, according to the report.

By the time global temperatures increase by 4 degrees Celsius, temperatures during the school year are projected to reach nearly 74 degrees Fahrenheit—associated with a 7 percent reduction in learning and a $2,300 loss in annual income.

All told, a rise in global temperatures could cost future K-12 graduates between $7 billion and $14 billion in income. Those losses would be particularly acute in northern states like Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming—states where researchers see both a coming dramatic rise in temperatures and a small number of schools with air-conditioning.

Yet these projections likely underestimate the total impact of heat on learning throughout childhood, the report says, since they only consider the effects of heat exposure on high school students.

Outfitting all U.S. public schools with modern air conditioning systems that last an average of 20 years would cost roughly $42 billion, according to 2021 research from the Center for Climate Integrity, a nonprofit environmental group. The EPA report adds that air-conditioning systems can contribute to greenhouse gas increases—an important tradeoff that schools will need to ponder in the years to come.

Poor air quality can lead to behavioral disorders and asthma

As climate change alters the environment, including temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns, air quality is expected to worsen. More severe weather, including wildfires and drought, will also lead to more pollutants in the air.

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults, and exposure can significantly affect their lung function and development, as well as brain development. The EPA report says there is some evidence that poor air quality can contribute to the development of autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

It can also cause or worsen asthma. The EPA report projects an additional 34,500 asthma cases per year among children in the continental United States if global temperatures warm by 2 degrees Celsius. If they increase by 4 degrees Celsius, asthma cases among children could increase by 89,600 per year.

Asthma has been linked to higher rates of school absenteeism, which then leads to lost learning and lower grades, past research has found. The EPA report estimates a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius could lead to students collectively missing 2.24 million school days a year. Students of color, and students from families without health insurance, are among the likeliest to suffer these consequences.

More intense allergy seasons can lead to several health issues

Climate change will result in longer and more intense pollen and allergy seasons. This could again worsen childhood asthma attacks, lead to other health issues, and potentially reduce the amount of time children spend outdoors. That’s a problem because research shows the more time children spend in nature, the less stressed they are and the more likely they are to maintain a healthy weight.

The report notes that higher pollen exposure could lead to students missing school, or being so uncomfortable or distracted while at school that they don’t do as well academically.

More frequent and severe flooding poses physical and mental health risks

Floods will become more frequent due to climate change, the report says, in part because of the rising sea levels and more severe storms that lead to flash flooding. Floods are, of course, particularly dangerous for children—between 2017 and 2021, 92 children died in flood-related drownings. The risk of disease may increase afterward, too, including from exposure to mold.

Floods and their aftermath are also traumatic. The EPA report says that children might experience post-traumatic stress disorder from exposure to extreme weather and displacement from their homes. At 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, nearly 200,000 additional children might live in areas from which they could have to temporarily evacuate, and that estimate grows to more than 550,000 children at 4 degrees Celsius of global warming.

Severe weather that disrupts school operations can be particularly devastating for students with disabilities, according to a report released last week by the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency. It can take months for students with individualized education plans to get back on track. And students with disabilities who are displaced from their school and transferred to another one often end up much further behind on learning than their peers without disabilities.

The spread of infectious diseases may become dangerous

Tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease, are already common: In 2019, children up to age 19 experienced 6,560 confirmed and probable cases, making up about a third of cases overall. Symptoms range from a short-term rash to lifelong neurological or heart conditions. Black children are particularly at risk, the report says, since the rash might be difficult to detect on darker skin.

Yet vector-borne illnesses like Lyme disease might become more common, since climate change will alter the geographic patterns of ticks and other disease-spreading organisms.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2023 edition of Education Week as Disrupted Learning and Health Woes: Climate Change Impacts Educators Should Brace For

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