I stood outside my school in Cupertino helplessly holding onto an umbrella that was being pulled away from me by the gusting winds.
“Mom, can you pick me up now?” I said into the phone in my other hand.
Class was dismissed early because of a power outage, interrupting one of my tests. Later that night, I tossed and turned in bed wondering where I could go the next day to get my work done since there was no power at home, either.
Power outages were the latest in a string of climate-related disruptions from wildfire smoke, heat, drought and floods over the past year. It was really taking a toll on me both physically and mentally.
The California Legislature, schools and communities need to make student health and education a top priority in the battle against climate change. It’s time to build climate-resilient schools to reduce the harm to K-12 students caused by extreme weather, as called for by the statewide Climate Ready Schools Coalition, or CRSC.
Extreme weather negatively impacts the physical and mental health of students – just like it has done to me. In September 2022, when a heat wave blanketed my hometown with temperatures reaching 110 degrees, all athletic activities that were held outdoors or in spaces without air conditioning were immediately canceled or moved indoors.
That was probably the least harm that extreme heat has inflicted upon us. Heat-related illness can include coughing and asthma, renal disease from severe dehydration, bacterial intestinal infections, ear infections and nervous system diseases, according to a March report from CRSC. Wildfire smoke triggered my asthma in 2020, which, the report warns, can cause pneumonia, neuropsychological effects and a higher lifetime risk for cancer.
Perhaps the worst effects of climate-related extreme events are declines in students’ mental health due to post-traumatic stress. The CRSC report cited a survey in Sonoma County that found 77% of students personally affected by wildfires experienced feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
Schools, of all places, should be equipped to protect us from the dangerous effects of extreme weather on our health and education, since we spend at least 180 days in school each year. We need upgraded HVAC systems to maintain clean air when wildfire smoke contaminates it, or to keep us cool during the heat waves. We need backup power storage to keep schools open when extreme weather causes power outages. We also need sufficiently trained professionals to help address our mental health needs when we struggle with stress and anxiety.
These measures can keep us healthy as climate change-induced crises become more frequent. The California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment in 2018 predicted that the frequency of extreme wildfires would increase by nearly 50%, and that the average area burned statewide would increase by 77% by 2100. The megaflood we are experiencing now and the megadrought that gripped the southwestern U.S. for the past two decades are all unprecedented.
Although fighting climate change needs long-term solutions, immediate actions such as providing resources to schools to mitigate the adverse impacts of extreme weather are critical to protect school-aged children, one of the most vulnerable populations.
The lights were still on at my cousin’s house during the power outage, so I ended up rushing through my homework over there the next day. The advice he gave me is what many California schools are forced to do until every school is climate ready: get a backup power supply system – because you’re on your own.
more from calmatters’ earth day op-ed contest
Earth Day Op-Ed Contest Winner: 4th Place More than 100 high school and middle school students across California submitted opinion pieces to CalMatters’ inaugural Earth Day contest. The contest theme was “How have changes in climate impacted your community?” Guest Commentary written by Jesse Morris Jesse Morris is a high school student from Tulare County. He…
From brainy write-ups to passionate pleas for reform, here are selected excerpts from CalMatters’ Earth Day op-ed contest.