Measuring the effects of extreme weather requires extreme numbers.
Climate change racked up an eye-popping $165 billion damages tab in the U.S. last year, as tallied by a recent federal report. And back in September, around 82 percent of Florida school districts closed for at least one day — keeping roughly 2.5 million students out of school.
With experts predicting more extreme weather in 2023, that undoubtedly means schools will suffer more disruptions in a K-12 education era already defined by pandemic-related learning setbacks. This puts physical classrooms in harm’s way, and also threatens students’ academics and mental health, too.
Climate Change’s Education Cost
Climate change impacts on K-12 education are a problem worldwide. Damage from disasters like flooding, cyclones and wildfires can shutter schools for long periods, a Brookings Institute report says, or cause students to miss school due to illness or damage to their homes. The report authors were particularly concerned about repercussions for girls.
“These risks are particularly acute for adolescent girls, who have a short window of opportunity to get back to school before they are forced to take a different path — including marriage or migration for work,” researchers write.
In the U.S., physical threats to schools from weather vary from region to region. They include hurricanes, wildfires and winter storms.
For example, last year, California’s legislature identified climate change as a major threat to K-12 education for its potential to disrupt students’ lives and learning, along with school districts’ budgets. One of its most notable dangers is increased wildfires, which caused more than 100 school districts to evacuate when they swept the state in 2020. But the analysis also warns that schools must prepare for closures due to heat-induced power outages or poor air quality.
“In some areas of the state, educators and students may also increasingly be impacted by flooding that disrupts their ability to get to school or impairs the functionality of school facilities on a short‑ or long‑term basis,” the state analysis says. “More frequent closures will cause disruptions to education, special education services, school meals, child care, and other services.”
What Does Recovery Look Like?
Extreme weather doesn’t just put students in literal danger. It can also disrupt their learning progress — and affect their well-being.
Students can academically bounce back after a natural disaster, but it’s not a guarantee. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed students’ performance following Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, which hit the state in 2016 and 2018 respectively. They found that standardized test scores dropped across grade levels following the storms, and that elementary students scored progressively worse on tests for each of the three years following Hurricane Matthew.
One of those researchers is Cassandra R. Davis, an assistant professor in the department of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says that climate data reveals the Tar Heel State in particular can expect to be hit by a tropical storm every other year, making disruption to education consistent.
“You’re regressing from an event that happened in 2016,” Davis says, referring to Hurricane Matthew, “and another event is gonna happen within two years, right? So the question is, ‘Do students ever get an opportunity to recover?’”
Helping students get back on track academically doesn’t just mean getting them back on campus or connected to class on Zoom.
Researcher Carl Weems, a professor at Iowa State University, writes that students who experience natural disasters are coming back to school with post-traumatic stress disorder, which begets test anxiety, which begets lower test scores.
“My own research — and that of many others — shows that while children are often resilient in the face of disasters, the effects of trauma can be insidious and linger for years to come,” Weems wrote for The Conversation. “Therefore, if schools want to help students do better, my research suggests they should focus on helping kids learn to regulate their anxiety.”
In an interview with EdSurge, Weems said that one distinction between 2005 and now is people’s willingness to acknowledge the importance of mental health. The key to actually doing something about it, he says, will be having sufficient federal and state funding to ensure schools can put mental health support in place.
“My experience after [Hurricane] Katrina and a lot of people kind of saying, ‘No, we don’t need help for PTSD,’” he recalls. “It’s been almost 20 years, and in that time there has been an evolution of thinking on this.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because K-12 educators have been wrestling for three years with how to help students thrive during and recover from remote learning, and its socio-emotional side effects, following the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
One thing educators have found is there’s no silver bullet solution to giving kids a learning boost. So have they learned strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic that will help them better support students when their education is interrupted by extreme weather or other climate-related disasters?
Davis certainly hopes so, but she adds that the education ecosystem generally is behind the curve when it comes to thinking about how it will be impacted by climate change.
“I hope that it doesn’t take until 2027 for education to be like, ‘We need to start thinking about climate change,’” Davis says, “because what will happen is those [schools] that have resources and access will already be prepared with electric vehicles, with solar panels. And those groups that just don’t have the means or the access will be left even further behind.”