It’s September and schoolchildren in the US are back to school. What will be on the learning agenda for those in pre-K through 12th grade that will prepare them to be thoughtful, engaged adults? Will they be ready to deal with the changes and upheavals facing our planet? How will they be educated to play their part as a civic-minded generation? What role can parents take to ensure their children’s curriculum, school buildings, and transportation are part of the solution, and not the problem?
In May 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held a world conference attended by international prime ministers, environmental activists, and educators (plus 10,000 online viewers). There, the Berlin Declaration on Education was introduced. One of the core commitments was to “ensure that Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is a foundational element of our education systems at all levels, with environmental and climate action as a core curriculum component.”
The statement underscored that transformations would require “promoting the required political action to bring about these changes.” Featured was the need for “prioritizing marginalized populations,” gender equity, and “non-discrimination in access to knowledge and skills.” The declaration specifically called on countries to:
“Empower young people as change agents for sustainable development, by creating opportunities for learning and civic engagement, and providing them with the competencies and tools to participate in ESD as co-creators of individual and societal transformation.”
Here in the US, where there are arguments over how to teach our country’s history and what books should be allowed in libraries, that can present as a tall order.
Local politics is frequently a key factor. Some states have already led the way. In 2020, New Jersey called for a climate change curriculum to be mandatory in their primary schools. Now, it has been implemented.
In Connecticut, almost 90% of schools have embraced the topic of climate change as part of the science syllabus. It will be state law for those who are lagging by July 2023. State Representative Bobby Sanchez, co-chair of the Connecticut House Education Committee, and several members of his Democratic caucus have been pushing for this legislation since 2019.
Unfortunately, on-the-ground situations have demonstrated how environmental factors affect students and teachers.
This summer, in Columbus, Ohio, the teachers’ union called for a strike to bring attention to classrooms without air conditioning (among other issues). Guidelines put forth by ASHRAE, which focuses on risk management for public health in buildings (check their page for schoolchildren), agree with the Association for Learning Environments. The latter studied how classroom temperatures impacted test scores. They found:
- At 61 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 76%
- At 72 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 90%
- At 81 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 72%.
In 2018, the Harvard Kennedy School presented a paper called “When the Heat Is On, Student Learning Suffers.” It was the first research of its kind. It showed that scores dipped in a year when the temperatures were higher and that “low-income and minority students were impacted by heat more than others.” When school facilities installed air conditioning, it virtually eliminated the effects on learning that had been heat-induced.
Extreme weather occurrences were also a feature of the school season in Kentucky. Floodwaters impacted 25 school districts, leaving teachers and students returning from COVID lockdown scrambling.
So how can parents potentially ensure that their schools are energy efficient, that buses that run on diesel fuel get replaced by electric models, and that science courses reflect reality? Here are some tips:
- Check out groups that support top-flight learning standards.
- Insist that the environment be a top issue for your members of Congress.
- Find out if any and what type of pollution is emitted from your child’s institution and advocate for upgrades.
- Ask if your child’s facility has the option to start a school garden.
- Consider running for the school board.
- Encourage your children to start grade-appropriate environmental clubs.
- Reach out to your state’s elected assembly to inform them of your concerns.
The 2022–23 school year is a perfect time for those who want to shape a healthy, just future to hit the climate books.