Facing wildfires and pandemics, California must invest in ensuring clean air in schools

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Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

The burned remains of the Paradise Elementary school on Nov. 9, 2018, in Paradise. Blocks and blocks of homes and businesses in the Northern California town were destroyed by a wildfire.

After a year of prolonged school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, California’s educators have been hard at work readying to open to full-time, in-person learning across the state.

Lisa Patel

Schools face falling enrollment and learning loss that will impact schoolchildren for years to come, making successful reopening essential to regain lost ground.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom expects 99% of schools to reopen to full-time in-person learning in August, schools may be derailed by an entirely different calamity threatening children’s access to a stable education: worsening wildfires due to climate change.

Wildfire smoke threatens children’s health. Breathing toxic pollution from wildfires is roughly 10 times more dangerous for children when measured against comparable air pollution from other sources.

The fine, inhalable particles found in wildfire smoke, called PM2.5, can cause increased emergency room visits for asthma and increased upper respiratory infections in children.

Long-term studies on wildfire smoke in children is currently lacking, but we know from data on firefighters that repeated exposure results in higher lung cancer rates and greater risk of death from heart attacks and stroke.

Erika Veidas

Before the pandemic, schoolchildren in California had started to miss an increasing number of school days due to wildfires. Schools close for evacuation or because they lack the protocols and infrastructure to keep indoor air quality safe during poor air quality days.

The state has increased infrastructure investments in schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic that could be beneficial for schools’ wildfires readiness as well, but substantially more funding and support will be needed to help schools navigate the worsening threats of climate change.

Learning loss and lost school days are a growing problem in California, with counties like Sonoma seeing upwards of 40 cumulative days lost. Since the state began collecting data in 2003, wildfires have accounted for two-thirds of school closures through 2018.

Zoe Lew

The 2020 wildfires broke all records, burning countless homes and structures and resulting in two months of poor air quality that likely would have kept schools closed in parts of California had the pandemic not shuttered their doors. With climate change driving increasingly hot days and nights and a megadrought expanding throughout the Western region, we can expect yearly and year-round wildfires with dangerously foul air quality.

During wildfire seasons, schools lacking appropriate infrastructure to keep indoor air quality safe may choose to close as a preventive measure. We have already seen what closures mean for children this last year: lost access to nutritious school lunches, parents having to leave the workforce leading to further lost income, and accumulating learning loss.

The evidence has long shown that even a few weeks of missed school can add up to learning loss and lowered educational attainment. These, in turn, can affect a child’s health and well-being over the course of their lifetime. It can reduce their likelihood of graduating from high school, impacting lifetime income, access to health insurance and life expectancy. The effects of school closures are not borne equally, with Black and Hispanic children and children living in poverty experiencing more severe outcomes.

For schools to adapt to the health threats from our rapidly warming climate, they need improved infrastructure. Specifically, they need heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems that filter pollution and infectious particles from the air in order to maintain a safe learning environment despite the threats of heat, wildfires and pandemics.

Fortunately, two streams of funding exist to help schools improve their HVAC systems and infrastructure, including CalSHAPE and the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.

CalShape funds are for schools that have HVAC systems not facing imminent replacement. These funds target repairs and improvements. For systems that will likely be replaced within two years, CalShape will not offer funding for replacement. This is a critical gap, and the deployment of new funding to allow districts to make necessary infrastructure improvements is essential.

Additionally, smaller districts often lack staffing to apply for these funds. This can be addressed through creative partnerships with organizations like Mothers Out Front, which is working to create climate liaisons who can help schools apply for funding to implement infrastructure changes to keep kids safe through these increasing climate-related threats to health.

Although the price tag on school infrastructure improvements can add up to billions of dollars, inaction is more expensive. Poor health and missed school days that result in a lifetime of missed opportunity can cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

Funding sources like CalShape are a good start, but public schools in California will need much larger school infrastructure investments.

Each of us can play a role in our school districts by learning more about what plans exist for upgrades, highlighting funding opportunities for our districts and continuing to advocate for increased school infrastructure funding.

Today’s children did not cause climate change, but their lives will be profoundly disrupted and shaped by it. Making these investments to ensure a continuously safe and stable education, despite the surrounding climate calamities, is our collective moral obligation.

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Zoe Lew is a research assistant for the Sean N. Parker Center on Allergy and Asthma Research. Lisa Patel is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University. Erika Veidis is planetary health program manager at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health.

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