During the week of Nov. 12, 2018, more than 1 million California students missed school. Wildfires raged across the state. The Camp Fire had destroyed the town of Paradise, California, a few days earlier, and went on to become the most expensive natural disaster in the world that year.
Though schools in some communities burned, most closures occurred after wildfire smoke rendered air quality so bad that officials decided it was unsafe for kids to come to class.
The extreme number of school closures — affecting 18% of the state’s K-12 public school students in a single week — caught the eye of Lisa Patel, MD, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the Stanford School of Medicine.
Patel worked as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist before attending medical school and remains interested in studying links between climate change and children’s health. Schools weren’t equipped with air filters able to keep their indoor air clean on smoky days, but with climate change driving worsening wildfire seasons, she thought they should be.
Though California has long been a leader in clean air regulations — becoming, in 1966, the first state to enact tailpipe-emission standards to reduce smog, for example — its intensifying heat and wildfire seasons are beginning to erase these gains.
The American Lung Association’s 2023 air quality report card gave F grades for ozone pollution to 30 of 49 California counties that collect ozone data, and 41 of 46 counties with particulate data received F’s for their particle pollution levels. Poor air raises the risk of premature birth and poses a variety of health risks for children, including heat stroke during heat waves and asthma.
“Climate change will be the single greatest determinant of health for a child born today,” Patel said. In the past few years, her work has increasingly focused on how to improve the air in California’s K-12 public schools, where children spend 180 days per year.
To address the problem, Patel assembled a coalition of experts in late 2021 to produce a Stanford Medicine-led report that explains the gaps in schools’ climate resilience and proposes a 10-year, $150 billion statewide master plan to address them.
Since its publication this year, the white paper has attracted attention from California legislators, who have proposed six bills targeting aspects of school sustainability. Among them is Senate Bill 394, which calls for the California Energy Commission to convene other state agencies and education stakeholders to develop a statewide master plan for ensuring schools are climate resilient.
Work on the report began after leaders at the 11th Hour Project, a program of The Schmidt Family Foundation focusing on climate mitigation and resilience, noticed a Stanford Medicine News Center story about Patel’s effort to raise awareness of new government funding for upgrading schools’ air filtration systems. The funds had been allocated to help schools reopen after COVID-19 closures. But Patel realized the money could also help relieve the effects of longer, worse wildfire seasons.
“Kids in places like Marin County [north of San Francisco], which was hit by smoke from devastating fires, missed upward of three weeks during the 2018-2019 school year due to wildfire smoke, evacuation orders or power outages,” she said in the article.
As a result of the story, the 11th Hour Project sponsored a comprehensive report on how California schools could become more climate resilient. Patel began recruiting collaborators from Stanford Medicine, the University of California, Berkeley, and local school districts, trade and teachers unions and nonprofits to describe the problem and set goals for how the state could address it, leading to this year’s report.
Educators will be increasingly challenged by California’s aging schools, thousands of which were built more than 50 years ago, before climate change was on anyone’s radar. “Our schools are not built to handle what’s coming,” Patel said.
A big task
The state’s approximately 10,000 public K-12 schools need major upgrades to their physical facilities to make them climate resilient, protecting students as the climate shifts, the report says.
Such upgrades should include installing highly efficient air filtration and cooling systems; equipping schools with solar panels, batteries and electric appliances so they can operate on clean power sources rather than gas (and function if the power grid is out); and constructing schoolyards with shade and drought-resistant landscaping to give children safe outdoor spaces that also provide them with respite.
The report also calls for resources for educators to support students living with the stress of climate disasters. In addition, schools need curricula that help kids understand what is being done to stem climate change and how they might pursue careers that help preserve or restore the quality of the environment.
Perhaps most important, the changes need to be carried out in ways that prioritize giving funds first to the regions of the state that are hardest hit by climate change, typically economically disadvantaged areas with schools that are already chronically underfunded.
The task ahead is substantial, but the news isn’t all bad. “The state already has all these goals for carbon neutrality and other aspects of sustainability, and this is a really potent way to move toward those goals,” said Erika Veidis, the planetary health program manager for the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, who led the report’s development with Patel.
Last year, California committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2045. Since school infrastructure is so large — 125,000 acres of grounds with 730 million square feet of buildings — schools will be key to the state reaching this goal, Veidis said.
“It’s not a drop in the bucket: Schools are responsible for 9% of emissions from nonresidential buildings in California and cover a huge amount of land.”
The global COVID-19 pandemic provided an extreme example of why children and communities need well-functioning schools. Days after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, on March 11, 2020, California’s public schools shifted to remote learning.
Most of the state’s students spent the next year online, causing learning setbacks and exacerbating inequities. Kids in poorer households struggled on many fronts. For instance, they were less likely to have internet access and connected devices for online learning and less likely to have a parent working from home who could help with schoolwork.
Not only did the pandemic highlight how school closures damage kids’ well being, but it also drew attention to schools’ unreadiness for climate change, Patel said.
In 2021, leaders in her own children’s school district, San Francisco Unified, asked her for advice on how to reduce students’ risk of catching COVID-19 when they returned to in-person instruction.
“I’d say ‘Oh, we’ll just open the windows,’ and then I’d learn that the windows had been painted shut,” Patel said. Or she would suggest upgrading filters in schools’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, “and they would look at me crazy because so many schools in California, including in San Francisco Unified, have no HVAC systems. They were built for a different climate era.”
At present, an estimated 38% of California students attend public schools that fail to meet basic facility standards.
Many children are already suffering the health and academic effects of climate change, particularly from extreme heat and wildfire-related air pollution. Children with asthma are especially vulnerable. Patel, a hospitalist at Stanford Health Care Tri-Valley in Pleasanton, California, has seen that children of color and children living in poverty are over-represented among those who come to the hospital with asthma episodes on hot or smoky days.
“This is borne out in the literature: We know those two populations are at higher risk,” she said. “They tend to live closer to areas of pollution to begin with, and often have poorer access to medication or care that would prevent their asthma from flaring.”
Wildfires are a growing concern in California, where the three worst-ever fire seasons — 2018, 2020 and 2021 — all occurred in the past five years. Recent research suggests wildfire smoke is bad for kids, and not just those with asthma.
A Stanford Medicine study published in 2019 found that smoke from a 415-acre wildfire that burned in September 2015 near Fresno, California, had higher levels of toxins than smoke from a similar-sized controlled burn carried out to reduce underbrush. Children near the wildfire were more exposed to pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, elemental carbon, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
Their blood had lower levels of a group of cells involved in the immune response, type-1 T helper cells, and reduced activity of a gene, Foxp3, that plays an important role in modulating allergic and other immune responses. The study, led by senior research scientist Mary Prunicki, MD, PhD, was published in the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
A 2021 study, which assessed records of pediatric emergency-room visits for respiratory complaints in San Diego County, estimated that exposure to ultrafine particulate matter, made of particles smaller than 2.5 microns, was about 10 times as harmful to children’s respiratory health when the tiny particles came from wildfires compared with other pollution sources. The findings, from the Scripps Institute and the University of California, San Diego, appeared in Pediatrics.
“It isn’t surprising because what’s burning in a wildfire includes houses and cars,” Patel said. Ultrafine particles get deep into the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, potentially setting off inflammatory cascades, she added.
Extreme heat, such as the September 2022 “heat dome” that brought temperatures above 110° F to much of California, also puts kids at risk, including for heatstroke. And the lack of air conditioning in many schools, especially in poorer communities, interferes with learning.
A study published in 2020 in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (led by R. Jisung Park, PhD, at the University of Pennsylvania) found that heat exposure in school disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic students, accounting for roughly 5% of the racial achievement gap in standardized test scores.
Other hazards of heat waves are power outages or rolling blackouts. These can occur if the electrical grid becomes overtaxed or power is shut off to reduce wildfire risk, making it harder for schools with air conditioning to use it.
Climate change is also taking a toll on young people’s mental health. One of the largest studies exploring this phenomenon, a survey of 10,000 teens and young adults from 10 countries, was published in 2021 in The Lancet Planetary Health. It found that climate-related anxiety interfered with daily function for 45% of all respondents, with greater impairment in youth living in areas more affected by climate change.
Being exposed to more extreme weather events, seeking information about climate change in a doom-scrolling fashion and seeing little action from leaders all contribute to climate anxiety, said Britt Wray, PhD, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences instructor and study co-author.
“There are links to feelings of being betrayed by leaders,” Wray said. “Youth see people who are supposed to protect them not upholding their end of the deal. That feeds into making climate anxiety worse.”
Updating schools, equitably
Closing schools is a common, but unsustainable, response to heat waves, wildfires and other extreme climate events.
“Kids are losing out on learning time,” said Jonathan Klein, a cofounder of UndauntedK12, a nonprofit that helps schools reduce their carbon footprint, and a co-author of the report. His organization is tracking school closures around the country related to extreme weather and working toward solutions to make schools more climate-resilient.
Not only do closures interrupt children’s education, there’s no guarantee that kids will have safe conditions such as clean air elsewhere, Patel said, adding that children in low-income households are less likely to have those conditions at home.
Upgrading schools equitably will require modifications to how school building projects are funded, according to Jeffrey Vincent, PhD, a co-author of the report and director of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley.
“School facility finance remains the most regressive aspect of public-education finance in California,” Vincent said. Facility upgrades are generally funded by bond measures, levied in local elections as a percentage of property taxes. “This means the wealthier districts can access more local money and state matching grants for facility upgrades.”
Wealthy districts are also more likely to have staff who can sort through a mishmash of existing funding opportunities.
“A lot of the funding we’re calling for already exists, but it’s too small given the scale of needs, and it’s not coordinated,” Veidis said. For instance, schools can tap government funds through such programs as CalSHAPE, which pays for plumbing, air conditioning and efficiency upgrades at California schools, and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, part of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Greater awareness among school district staff of county and state sustainability initiatives is also essential, said Andra Yeghoian, a report co-author. Yeghoian, formerly the environmental literacy and sustainability coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education, recalled speaking with a school district official who had just invested in new gas-powered boilers for schools in his district.
“I said, ‘Did you know that the county is working on shutting off its natural gas pipelines by 2035?’” Yeghoian recounted. “He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He didn’t have a statewide master plan to guide decisions on replacing equipment.”
Next steps must make it easy for school officials to make climate-friendly decisions, Patel said. “It’s about creating the right incentives. So, for example, when the next statewide educational bond measure comes up in 2024, there are ways to write the measure that say, ‘This is what the money can go toward,’ and make sure it isn’t invested in more fossil fuel infrastructure.”
Curriculum and community
Readying school buildings, as important as it is, will not fully prepare California’s K-12 educational system for climate change, the experts agree. Schools also need to prepare kids for the climate reality they’ll live with for the rest of their lives.
That means updating curricula and support programs for students with more material about climate science and equipping teachers and other school staff to act on it — whether by explaining what an atmospheric river is in elementary-school science lessons; offering high school students programs in climate-related career pathways, such as environmental engineering or agricultural science; or hiring more counselors to meet mental health needs during and after climate catastrophes.
Even though the California Department of Education produced the 2015 “Blueprint for Environmental Literacy,” as of 2020 just 29% of the state’s teachers said they were incorporating environmental concepts into their instruction.
“It’s a topic that should be included in every subject area,” said Yeghoian, who began her career as a teacher and became engaged with environmental issues after seeing the film, An Inconvenient Truth. She found that her secondary students were eager to learn about climate change, too. “When kids learn about it, they’re highly concerned and want to take action,” said Yeghoian, now chief innovation officer at the environmental literacy nonprofit Ten Strands.
Klein, himself a former fifth grade teacher, said, “As a teacher, one of the first things you learn is ‘the hook.’ Young people are already engaged in this issue,” so it’s easier to draw them into lessons. “And they have a right to learn; it’s a generational justice issue. They have a right to understand how different ecological forces are unfolding and what are humanity’s best thoughts and the tensions among them about the solutions.”
Equipping schools to be safe havens and to prepare students for climate change will have knock-on mental health benefits, Wray said. Schools’ leaders can counter the psychological distress and sense of institutional betrayal kids experience when they see inaction from people in power.
“It’s a direct antidote to those things,” Wray said. “Taking action helps young people feel supported and understood, all the things that are good for resilience and belonging.”
“They can feel proud that their school is part of the solution,” Patel added.
Today, the team that produced the report is seeking ways to expand its reach, especially among California legislators. To that end, they hosted an online policy forum on April 21, 2023, featuring two state senators, Lena Gonzalez of the 33rd district and Nancy Skinner of the 9th district; Santa Clara County superintendent of schools Mary Ann Dewan, PhD; and other leaders, with the goal of inspiring legislators to advocate for laws and policies that will put the report into action.
“The work I do is very personal to me as a mom,” Gonzalez said at the forum, noting that her oldest child is a public school student in her senate district, which covers part of Los Angeles County. Her district includes schools “so dilapidated it’s awful,” she said, noting that she’s worried about extreme temperatures on asphalt schoolyards and poor air quality from diesel particulate matter.
Schools need a master plan for how to decarbonize, Gonzalez said, with a focus on equity and on making sure that the money California spends on school infrastructure — $7 billion annually — goes toward environmentally sustainable options. She hopes SB 394, which she introduced to the legislature, will be signed into law and fulfill this role. She also hopes the legislation will help tap funds available through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, which were both passed in the last two years.
“There is $6 billion that could be leveraged at the federal level if we get this plan into place ASAP,” she said.
“During the pandemic, chronic underinvestment in our schools really showed,” Patel said. As a pediatrician, an environmental scientist, and a mom, she saw that more investment is vital. “The value that I came away with, especially after dealing with a kindergartner at home doing Zoom school for a year, is that our children’s access to education and the community that comes with it should be sacrosanct.”
Although there is a lot of work to do, Patel is excited by the engagement she’s already seen in people working in California schools. “On a macro scale, there are big problems that the state needs to address, but on a micro scale, there are so many amazing people enacting solutions every day. I’ve learned so much talking to people who really want to be part of the solution. That’s been really heartening to see.”
EVENT: The Stanford Medicine Center for Excellence in Pulmonary Biology and Stanford Children’s Hospital are holding a symposium — When Helping Kids Means Healing the Planet: Climate Change and Childhood Lung Health — on June 19, 2023. Click here to find out more and register.