“After Hurricane Sandy, my school closed for a week, while whole school student bodies had to be relocated across the city. More recently, my school’s basement and entire first floor flooded the week before school started due to heavy rains.”
As an educator, I’ve seen first hand how school closures and student absences can affect learning—especially over the past three years of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as students and teachers returned to classrooms last week in 95 degree heat and with poor air quality, the climate crisis poses a looming threat to the stability of our school buildings and communities. If the city doesn’t act quickly, families can expect more sudden school closures and disrupted learning for years to come.
New York City schools are on the front lines of climate change. Most of the 1,867 schools in the city are housed in buildings that are 50 or even more than 100 years old. More than half of New York City school districts and many of the city’s old, decrepit school buildings overlap with low-lying flood zones. After Hurricane Sandy, my school closed for a week, while whole school student bodies had to be relocated across the city. More recently, my school’s basement and entire first floor flooded the week before school started due to heavy rains. Supplies, books and other materials were ruined, and many teachers had to spend the last week of summer racing to re-set up their classrooms. If the storm had happened just one week later, students might have missed days of school while the flood damage was cleaned up.
Hundreds of schools, meanwhile, are in neighborhoods that bear the brunt of the urban heat island effect, and all schools feel the effects of extreme heat. The first day of school this year brought temperatures in the mid-90s. And as any teacher knows, there are still rooms without (working) air conditioning in nearly every school building: If you ever want to attempt something truly futile, try teaching 30 children math on a 100-degree day without AC. Not to mention that many schools rely on their outdoor spaces for recess, gym and even lunch. Long term, extreme heat absent building electrification and renewable energy will also make blackouts more likely, which could shutter school buildings for days at a time.
Poor indoor air quality is another climate risk factor that closes schools and already impedes learning, leaving children vulnerable not only to disease that keeps them home, but also to wildfire smoke. While all kids need clean air, New York City schools also serve more than 60,000 children with asthma, the majority of whom are students of color and are more vulnerable both to COVID and to the effects of air pollution. Imagine what the weeks of toxic air in June meant for those families and kids. Over the years I’ve had students with asthma miss days, even weeks of school at a time—that was before wildfires filled our skies with smoke. For children with asthma and other chronic illnesses, clean indoor air is both an academic and health imperative.
Despite three years of COVID-19 spreading in schools, improving indoor air quality largely stalled after the de Blasio administration purchased ineffective air filters for classrooms in 2020. Not only are the filters subpar, but in my experience they are rarely used because they are so loud you can’t teach over the noise. (In my classroom, I purchased my own quieter HEPA filters because teaching over the Intellipures was nearly impossible.) Borough President Mark Levine and Council Member Keith Powers’ recent bill to monitor air quality in school buildings is a good first step, but with all we have learned and with all the funding that has been made available for schools during the pandemic, and after this summer’s air quality crisis, there is no excuse for the city to spend years monitoring instead of setting standards and making the necessary improvements now.
Of course, the biggest risk factor for school buildings is global climate breakdown: What we’re seeing this summer with extreme heat, storms, fires and smoke is nothing compared to the catastrophic consequences of continued fossil fuel use and expansion. Ultimately, if we want to keep schools open we need to transition them (and all buildings) off fossil fuels to renewable energy.
On this front, there has been some progress: Last year, Mayor Adams announced a $4 billion initiative to upgrade light fixtures, electrify 100 existing school buildings and ensure that all new school buildings are fossil fuel-free. In practice, only $2 billion has been allocated, few schools have plans in place to use the funding and it leaves too many buildings reliant on dirty fossil fuels. And for those of us on the ground, there are many obstacles to actually greening school buildings: When I served as a school sustainability coordinator in 2019, our School Leadership Team (SLT) was told that rooftop solar wouldn’t be possible until we were due for a new roof, which for many schools is a decade or more away. As of now, 68 buildings have solar installed. There are 150 additional schools working on solar installations, but that leaves more than 1,000 schools behind.
We can do better. It’s time for New York City to take an aggressive, two-pronged approach to making school buildings climate safe. On the one hand we need to rapidly decarbonize and electrify buildings to meet the city’s emission reduction goals. On the other hand, we need investment to make our buildings flood, heat, disease and air pollution proof.
We already have the solutions we need—all that’s needed is the funding and the political will to get it done. We can transition off gas, upgrade ventilation systems and install high quality HEPA filters to improve indoor air. We can move classrooms out of basements, build bioswales and improve drainage around buildings to make buildings more flood resilient. And we can install roof-top solar, upgrade heating and cooling systems, paint roof tops white and install green roofs to cut emissions and help keep school buildings cool.
For too long, greening our school buildings has been seen as something altruistic we should do for the planet. But at this point we should all recognize that making our schools climate resilient—inside and out—is essential to school’s most basic responsibility: keeping children safe.
Liat Olenick is a teacher, parent and climate organizer with Climate Families NYC. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.