Over the past year, many of our schools have been pushed to their limits, not only by the pandemic, but also by the impact of climate change. Schools across the country have been closed due to climate-related disasters including hurricanes, floods and forest fires.
When COVID-19 revealed the fragility of public education, our schools adapted. It has never been clearer that schools are the cornerstones of our communities and will find a way to build resilience, even in times of crisis.
We can and must harness that same spirit of resilience to tackle the climate crisis. This generation of students is rightly concerned about the planet they inherit. As leaders of some of the county’s largest school districts, we agree the time to act is now. And that means mobilizing the education sector to work with community, state and federal leaders. This is why we have developed an action plan, drawing inspiration from educators and administrators who are already pioneers of change.
We both worked alongside Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action, a collaboration of education, environmental, youth and civil rights leaders led by CEO of the Education Trust and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. with former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman to describe this plan. We’re asking 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 a 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. A big takeaway for administrators and educators: there are countless ways to do it, and there is no reason that what some districts do cannot be replicated in every district in the United States.
In 2019, the Unified School Board of Los Angeles passed a resolution committing to the district’s transition to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2040. Students, parents, school board members and local decision-makers came together to advocate for its adoption. Now the district has a clean energy working group to support the implementation by deploying solar and energy efficient technology. Leveraging state funding to support the initial phases of construction, the district’s sustainability efforts are saving millions in energy costs each year.
In February, the Montgomery County School Board in Maryland., has reached an agreement with Highland Electric to transition their fleet of more than 1,400 combustion engine school buses to electric buses. The school district will lease the new buses at a fixed cost (the same cost they pay for diesel buses), thus avoiding the higher cost of their transition to electricity.
Such efforts are essential to reduce the carbon footprint of our schools and ensure cleaner 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 Chicago Public Schools, city water management agencies, and two local nonprofits aimed at transforming heat-trapping schoolyards into green, sustainable ones, which have l Additional benefit of reducing heat and flooding for the community. Schoolyard of the Mireles Academy, 28e to be supported by this partnership, which opened last month. The schoolyard, built in conjunction with the community, increases safe and healthy green spaces for Chicago families while storing over 200,000 gallons of stormwater to conserve water use.
After Santa Barbara, California experienced severe wildfires and mudslides in 2018, the community recognized the critical role schools play in tackling climate change. The school board adopted a proposal to equip schools with solar panels and storage batteries, thus creating “solar micro-grids” that can provide electricity to the entire community in the event of a blackout. By using a power purchase agreement in which a third party owns and maintains the solar grid, the school district avoids 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 involve students in teaching and learning about climate change and climate solutions. Teachers can encourage students to be activist against climate change through the visual and performing arts. Vocational and technical education partnerships with community colleges and businesses can help prepare students for success in high-skilled, well-paying jobs in a greener economy.
As educators, we must recognize that students of color and students from low-income families suffer the most from the consequences of climate change and we have a responsibility to change that. Climate change is affecting our work and the students and families we serve. And that impact will only get worse unless we all work to find solutions.
Across the country, there are nearly 100,000 public schools, residing on 2 million acres of land, operating 480,000 mainly diesel school buses, and serving over 7 billion meals each year. Education is a big part of the public sector that can and should take action on climate change. We envision a future where our schools are models of climate solutions, and those solutions are embedded in the lived experiences of our students.
As world leaders now gather for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, they underscore the need for collaboration to address the coming crisis. In education, we can do it at home with school leaders and educators recognizing that we have a role to play in tackling the climate and alongside our students. These key questions can help guide local planning and start conversations between principals, school boards, community organizations, educators, parents and students. When we mobilize for climate action, we show young people that we care about their future.