Heat, High Water, Hurricanes: Schools Are Not Ready for Climate Change

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When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in 2018, Calhoun County schools were ravaged. Winds of 160 miles per hour destroyed an elementary school and ripped high-school bleachers from the ground.

“It was complete devastation,” said Darryl Taylor Jr., superintendent of the district. “It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off.”

The Calhoun schools are still trying to rebuild what they lost five years ago. A new elementary school is not yet finished, and some students are still in temporary classrooms. The process of assessing the damage for insurance, along with the pandemic, has been arduous.

“It was long and slow,” Mr. Taylor said.

As climate disasters become more commonplace, school districts are learning that a strong storm can put learning in a state of disarray. In New York, a driving rain recently flooded the city, with water seeping into more than 300 schools. Cafeterias and kitchens were unusable; students’ 45-minute commutes turned into two hours; one school was temporarily evacuated.

The soaking followed a summer marked by record heat and wildfires. The question for schools around the country remains how, and if, they can prepare their facilities for climate change — and other natural calamities, like the coronavirus pandemic. Money is one issue; bureaucracy is another.

At the beginning of the academic year, many schools, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, had to close or dismiss students early because of sweltering heat. Many districts have aging schools that are not equipped to handle air-conditioning.

Heat waves are lasting longer and beginning earlier, said Jonathan T. Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

“Pretty much anywhere in the United States you’re going to have to be more careful about this and perhaps change how we run our schools in order to accommodate climate change,” Dr. Overpeck said.

But in many states, not enough money is being invested to make the necessary adjustments, he added.

“People in some states are going to be hammered by climate change because their political leaders are unwilling to admit there’s a problem,” Dr. Overpeck said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Education are key sources of funding for K-12 districts that are recovering from natural disasters. A 2022 study from the United States Government Accountability Office found that 840 public school districts, including 39 of the 100 largest school districts in the country, received grants from at least one of the agencies between 2017 and 2019 following natural disasters.

The districts had a higher proportion of children from socially vulnerable populations, like students who are low income, disabled or a racial minority. These communities, the G.A.O. report said, can experience more negative outcomes from natural disasters. Part of the problem is that they often have limited insurance coverage.

“Districts can’t always afford private insurance, which may have facilitated a more rapid recovery,” said Jacqueline M. Nowicki, director of K-12 education issues at the G.A.O.

Even when there is insurance money, Ms. Nowicki said, it often does not cover the actual cost of the rebuild.

Financial issues are compounded because many families move away after a natural disaster, which reduces funding to the district if the trend continues for several fiscal years.

Costs also tick up. School districts have to provide more mental health support to students and teachers in the traumatic aftermath of a natural disaster — and keep them safe, too.

The first two days back to learning for Calhoun County schools were difficult, said Mr. Taylor, the superintendent.

“Mainly, we needed to let them talk and debrief,” he said. “That following Monday, we picked up with instruction and moved on and finished a successful year as far as the academics were concerned.”

But the loss of an elementary school forced the district to reconfigure their schools. With about 2,200 students in the district, some 600 students had to be assigned a new place to learn. Portable schools were set up, with meals brought in daily from other locations.

The new elementary is expected to be finished next year.

The Covid-19 pandemic delayed progress of the school, Mr. Taylor said, because of global supply chain issues. On top of that, Calhoun, which is in a rural area, had to find contractors from other locations to do such a large project. Those workers were in high demand, which also made the job more expensive.

The new elementary school will have a cafeteria that is hardened to be used as a shelter or evacuation spot. It will also have bulletproof glass for security, another new educational imperative.

“You build a school building, an entire facility, that’s a 50-year facility,” Mr. Taylor said. “You try to plan for some things down the road.”

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