Apocalyptic-like weather is damaging the United States’ public school infrastructures, but school officials and administrators are doing little to prepare for it, the Washington Post reports.
The Washington Post article “How Extreme Weather Has Created a Disaster for School Infrastructure” describes how five-feet deep floodwaters have ripped through a junior high school in Waverly, Tennessee, destroying its buildings and furniture and turning its hallways into rivers.
Residents of the small town were unprepared for this catastrophic event but acted as fast as they could with their limited resources – building raised dirt berms and piled sandbags around the schools to keep the floodwaters at bay.
Waverly Junior High school is just one of the thousands of public schools in America devastated by climate change-induced disasters.
The US Government Accountability Office report finds that more than 50% of public school districts are in counties that experienced presidentially-declared major disasters from 2017 to 2019. However, much bigger and stronger climate catastrophes have continued to hit the country after the report was released in January 2022.
Wildfires are a constant threat to schools in the West, as flooding is to the Southern states. Heavy rains in the South can cause severe inland flooding that flushes out neighborhoods.
A 2017 Pew Charitable Trusts report finds that close to 6500 public schools are at high risk of flooding. The number is rising fast as the nation’s flood risk will increase by 26% in the next 30 years, according to a study published in Washington Post.
The Washington Post article, “Millions of homeowners face flood risks without realizing it, and climate change is making it worse,” mentions:
- “The country’s public school infrastructure is no match for apocalyptic weather, and little is being done to prepare. Inaction by school boards and administrators has already had negative consequences. The lack of investment and planning around educational facilities has meant that extreme-weather events routinely shutter buildings and keep kids out of school, which disturbs their grades, mental health, and the stability of their communities. There’s no question that schools are being affected. But how can we make sure they survive?”
- Apart from extreme events faced by the public school buildings, school buildings are also part of the problem. Four out of 10 public schools don’t have a long-term facility plan, and half of the public school districts need to upgrade or replace multiple structures. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 report card gave its school buildings a grade of D-plus.
The report “IWBI – State of Our Schools 2021” shows that more than one-third of public schools have portable buildings for their students, of which almost half are in poor condition. The report warns that public schools’ infrastructure is underfunded by 85 billion.
Laura Schifter, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, where she leads K12 Climate Action, an initiative to advance climate-friendly practices and policies within schools, says, “The education sector has not been vocal in its role in addressing climate change. There’s a huge critical need for schools to be climate resilient as they continue to be disrupted by climate events.”
Disruptions from extreme events cascade into other problems – low grades and test scores. Poorly ventilated classrooms also correlate with lower PSAT schools, according to a study published in the American Economic Association Journal in May 2020.
We noted the following observations that the Washington Post article, “How Extreme Weather Has Created a Disaster for School Infrastructure,” mentions:
- The impacts of climate change on public schools and their students’ academic achievement needs to be addressed. Solutions and designs abound when it comes to making schools more climate-resilient and climate-friendly, but this all boils down to cost and the question of who will pay for it. Some experts believe corporate reparations could help, while others think the federal government should take on a more significant financial role.
- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), aka Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), signed into law by President Biden on 15 November 2021, does not include public schools. Still, other bills could help, such as the Green New Deal for Public Schools, which has a proposed investment of 1.4 trillion dollars over ten years to improve existing schools and invest in schools for the future. According to experts, the bill, if passed, is a worthy investment.
- Climate resilience will mean $13 in savings for every dollar invested in infrastructure, a finding of a 2020 National Institute of Building Sciences report mentioned in the article.
- A 2020 National Institute of Building Sciences report found that for every dollar invested in climate mitigation strategies when building, $13 would be saved. But the longer the school infrastructure problem is allowed to continue, the higher its cost will be, says Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School. And the kids, the most vulnerable, are the ones who will pay for it.
- “Climate change is worsening, but there’s a lot of silence from the education sector,” says Nancy Metzger-Carter, a sustainability curriculum coordinator at Sonoma Academy, a K-12 school in Northern California, and leader of Schools for Climate Action, a youth-led campaign whose mission is to get schools to address climate change.
- But not all states are integrating climate change into their school curriculum, partly fuelled by the deepening polarization in the school board meetings, which can impact the momentum for comprehensive climate education, the article says.
- Lisa Kensler, a professor in educational leadership at Auburn University, whose focus is on teaching school leaders about leading with sustainability in mind and how to integrate these topics into their schools’ teaching practices, says, “School infrastructure problems and climate change problems are, at their core, educational challenges.”
- Andrea Stanley, the author of the Washington Post article, writes: “If we aren’t properly preparing the next generation about the problems of the climate crisis and how to fix them, our buildings will continue to be weak to the challenges of disasters. To borrow a construction metaphor: You can’t build a strong structure on a shaky foundation.”
Sustainability and resilience risk identification, planning, and management are being integrated into infrastructure asset management plans and planning across all asset types, including educational assets.
BACKGROUND PHOTO CREDIT: The photo of damaged books and tables was taken from the article “‘I could not have saved them’: Waverly school staff grateful storm hit on a weekend but face difficult road ahead“