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School & District Management Opinion

Schools Can’t Hide From Climate Change. They Must Be Part of the Solution

Every school district needs a local climate action plan
By Debra Duardo & Pedro Martinez — November 02, 2021 4 min read
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This past year has seen many of our schools pushed to their limits, not just by the pandemic but also the impact of climate change. Schools across the country have faced closures from climate-related disasters including hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.

When COVID-19 exposed the fragility of public education, our schools adapted. It’s never been clearer that schools are the cornerstones of our communities and will find a way to build resilience, even in the face of a crisis.

We can, and should, harness that same spirit of resilience to fight the climate crisis. This generation of students is rightly concerned about the planet they’re inheriting. As leaders of some of the largest school districts in the county, we agree that action is needed now. And that means mobilizing the education sector to work with community, state, and federal leaders. That’s why we’ve developed an action plan, taking inspiration from the educators and administrators who are already pioneering change.

We both worked alongside Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action, a collaboration of education, environment, youth, and civil rights leaders led by the Education Trust CEO and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. with former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to outline this plan. We are calling on school districts across the country to develop local climate action plans that focus on what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint, build climate resilience, and prepare students for the clean economy. These efforts must prioritize the communities most affected by climate change to advance equity.

We know this is achievable, because we have seen schools and districts doing this work. One big takeaway for administrators and educators: There are countless ways to take action and there is no reason what some districts are doing couldn’t be replicated in every district across the United States.

In 2019, the Los Angeles Unified school board passed a resolution committing to transitioning the district to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2040. Students, parents, school board members, and local policymakers came together to advocate its passage. Now, the district has a clean-energy task force to support implementation by deploying solar and energy-efficient technology. Leveraging state funding to support the initial phases of the work, the district’s sustainability efforts save millions in energy costs annually.

In February, the school board in Montgomery County, Md., entered into an agreement with Highland Electric to transition their more than 1,400 school combustion-engine bus fleet to electric buses. The school district will lease the new buses at a fixed cost (the same cost they pay for diesel buses), avoiding the higher cost of transitioning them to electric.

Such efforts are critical to reduce the carbon footprint of our schools and ensure healthier air for our children to breathe.

Schools can help build climate resilience for the whole community, not just students. Space to Grow is a partnership between the Chicago public schools, city water-management agencies, and two local nonprofits to transition heat-trapping schoolyards to green, sustainable ones, which have the added benefit of reducing community heat and flooding. Mireles Academy schoolyard, the 28th to be supported by this partnership, opened just last month. The schoolyard, built in collaboration with the community, increases safe and healthy green spaces for Chicago families all while storing over 200,000 gallons of storm water to conserve water usage.

After Santa Barbara, Calif., experienced severe wildfires and mudslides in 2018, the community recognized the critical role of schools in facing climate change. The school board passed a proposal to equip schools with solar panels and battery storage, creating “solar microgrids” that can provide the wider community with power in the event of outages. Utilizing a power-purchase agreement in which a third party owns and maintains the solar grid, the school district is avoiding additional upfront costs.

Across the country, there are nearly 100,000 public schools, residing on 2 million acres of land, operating 480,000 primarily diesel school buses, and serving over 7 billion meals each year.

And, of course, schools can engage students in teaching and learning on climate change and climate solutions. Teachers can encourage students to demonstrate activism on climate change through visual and performing arts. Career and technical education partnerships with community colleges and business can help ensure students are prepared for success in high-wage, high-skill jobs in a greener economy.
As educators, we must recognize that students of color and students from low-income families suffer the consequences of climate change the most and we have a responsibility to change that. Climate change affects our work and the students and families we serve. And that impact is only going to get worse unless we all work to advance solutions.

Across the country, there are nearly 100,000 public schools, residing on 2 million acres of land, operating 480,000 primarily diesel school buses, and serving over 7 billion meals each year. Education is a large part of the public sector that can and must take action on climate change. We envision a future where our schools are models for climate solutions, and these solutions become embedded in our students’ lived experiences.

As world leaders now gather for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, they emphasize the need for collaboration to address the crisis ahead. In education, we can do this at home with school leaders and educators acknowledging we have a role to play in the climate fight and stand with our students. These key questions can help guide local planning and start conversations between school leaders, school boards, community organizations, educators, parents, and students. When we mobilize for climate action, we demonstrate to young people that we care about their future.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Schools Can’t Hide From Climate Change

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