Nearly Half of Educators Say Climate Change Is Affecting Their Schools—or Soon Will Be

One in 4 teachers, principals and district heads say that climate change is impacting their school or area to some extent. And an additional 18 percent said that while their district has not been affected by climate change, they believe it poses a threat, according to a nationally representative survey of educators by the EdWeek Research Center.

Responses to the survey, taken in February, provide a rare glimpse into educators’ attitudes to climate change and its impact on their school communities. School buildings across the country have been demolished or forced to close in response to wildfires, extreme heat and flooding from hurricanes. More severe and frequent natural disasters, which have been linked to climate change, affect student learning and physical and mental health.

Even so, 8 percent of educators in EdWeek’s nationally representative online survey of 960 respondents said they don’t believe climate change is real. (By comparison, 14 percent of Americans don’t believe global warming is happening, according to the 2021 public opinion survey summary from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.) Most climate scientists and peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change agree that humans are a major cause of global temperature rise, changing weather patterns and causing sea levels to rise.

But most school districts have taken no action in the past five years to prepare for worse weather linked to climate change, according to 84 percent of school principals and district leaders surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center.

Reason? The most cited, by 36 percent of school and district principals, was that their campuses were located in areas they did not expect to be severely affected by climate change in the near future.

Many educators also express concern that senior district leaders, school board members, and the wider community will refuse to take action—either because people don’t believe climate change is real or that it’s not an immediate threat. There are also many more pressing crises vying for the attention of school and district leaders: the ongoing pandemic, student mental health, catching up with students academically, and charged debate about how racial and LGBTQ issues should be taught in schools—to name a few. just. Not all district leaders or other stakeholders believe that climate change is an area that districts should work on with limited time and resources.

“One of the things that surprised me, a lot of people indicated that they were afraid to work on this issue for fear of people looking down on them,” said Laura Schifter, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, who leads the organization’s K-12 climate action initiative, which is not involved in the project. EdWeek survey. However, he says, he is encouraged by the fact that educators themselves are not ignoring the impact of climate change on their school communities.

When asked for their personal views on the impacts of climate change in their districts or schools, 16 percent of teachers, principals, and district heads said that climate change had had a mild effect, while 7 percent said they had seen a moderate effect. Two percent said climate change had had a severe impact on their district or school.

Most respondents said although they believe climate change is real, they don’t think it will impact their district in the future (15 percent) or that climate change is unlikely to impact their district because of its location (25 percent).

That perception, that climate change will only affect some geographic areas and not others, hints at a misunderstanding of how changing weather patterns will affect our interconnected world, Schifter said.

“Thinking about how climate change will impact schools is much more than just the impact of extreme weather on the school,” he said.

For example, extreme weather in other parts of the country can cause students to be displaced, which will affect the schools that accept them, Schifter said. It will also change the economy and what types of jobs will be needed in the future.

“When we start thinking about the jobs that will be needed—whether it’s jobs around clean energy or jobs around what is needed for adaptation or, frankly, emergency management—our school systems need to follow suit to ensure that they provide students with the skills they need to succeed on the job. it,” he said.

What schools are doing to prepare for climate change

Overall, schools and districts are devoting more of their energy to reacting to the impacts of climate change than to reducing their carbon footprint.

Nearly half of principals and district leaders said their campuses had invested in infrastructure to support distance teaching when, or if, bad weather made it impossible for face-to-face classes, while 43 percent said they had upgraded school buildings to be more weather-resistant.

“Investing in infrastructure to promote remote instruction—which seems to be totally reactive to the pandemic. Ultimately, what the pandemic is highlighting is that we need to build more resilience to prepare for disruption,” said Schifter. “I think it encourages that in [educators’] responding to climate change, there is an acknowledgment of the fact that what they have done with COVID is helping them prepare for climate change-related extremes.”

Most principals and district leaders said their campuses had considered climate change when developing emergency response plans (22 percent) and facility plans (30 percent).

Among other things, preparation:

  • Thirty-nine percent of principals and district leaders said their campuses had started using energy-efficient equipment, and 17 percent said their school or district had invested in sustainable energy sources such as solar or wind power.
  • Thirteen percent said their district had developed a strategic plan related to climate change.
  • Another 13 percent said their school or district had taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint through efforts such as composting, and 4 percent said they had set targets to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Eleven percent of school and district principals said they had eliminated single-use plastic in their schools.
  • Six percent said they had converted or planned to convert a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle, such as a school bus, to electric.
  • Four percent said they had purchased new or different insurance for inclement weather, and 2 percent of school principals and district leaders said they had gone that far by closing or relocating buildings in locations most likely to be affected by severe weather.

Schools can play a big role in reducing carbon emissions, according to the Aspen Institute. Schools are one of the largest public sector energy consumers in the countrythey operate what is equivalent to the largest mass transit fleet in the country, and they generate more than 530,000 tonnes of food waste per year.

In terms of what teachers, principals, and district leaders think is needed to improve the ability of their schools or districts to prepare for the impacts of climate change, money—perhaps unsurprisingly—is one of the two most cited supports.

Others: 36 percent said that better efforts to educate stakeholders about the need to prepare for climate change are also needed.

Nearly a third said they felt they needed support from the wider community to improve the capacity of their school or district to deal with climate change.

Eleven percent said their school or district did not need anything to help prepare for the impacts of climate change because their campus was well prepared, and 9 percent said climate change did not exist or did not pose a threat to their school or district.

About This Series

This article is part of the ongoing Education Week series, Climate Crisis and Schools, about how climate change and schools intersect. We aim to explain how schools contribute to climate change; highlighting the challenges facing the district in dealing with the impacts of climate change; and offers a solution to the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that often accompany this subject. If you have related story ideas for us, please email staff writer Madeline Will at mwill@educationweek.org.

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