India’s Hot Schools Show We Need to Climate-Proof Education

School’s about to be out for the summer in India—weeks earlier than planned. In recent days, the subcontinent has been experiencing a heatwave in spring that has forced many north Indian states to alter their school hours and resume online lockdown classes.

Air conditioning is rare in Indian schools—a selling point for the few that offer it—and heat-related power outages have left classrooms unable to run electric fans. Students fainted during classes in Gurgaon (a suburb of Delhi), according to teachers. Students from Kolkata claimed they could not focus during exam. On April 29, the government in Punjab, a northern state where temperatures reached nearly 115°F this week, said that it will send students home on May 16 for two weeks of online classes. The school schedule is being adjusted so students have the option to learn between 7 and 12.30 pm, then return home at the end of the day. Similar plans were announced by Haryana and Chhattisgarh.

India is saved by such shutdowns. India is not unfamiliar with extreme heat. Authorities rely on surveillance and warning systems in order to stop people exerting their willpower when it gets dangerously hot. In the past, states also brought back school holidays.

But with severe heat waves now regularly arriving weeks before the official start of summer, and after two years of COVID-19 closures that severely disrupted Indian children’s education, some teachers say the country needs to do more to make its schools resilient to climate change. Gurbachan Singh, a Punjab-based math teacher and representative for educators union the Democratic Teachers Front (DTF), accused the state of resorting to “easy shortcuts,” by shutting down schools. “The government should give priority to holding regular classes and giving the schools proper power supply and weather-appropriate infrastructure instead of shutting them down,” Singh told Times of IndiaThis Wednesday

India isn’t the only country in which extreme weather conditions pose a problem for schools. “Climate change is increasingly having a very real impact on children’s opportunity to learn globally,” says Robert Jenkins, UNICEF’s director of education. “We in the education sector are waking up too late to this challenge.”

UNICEF surveyed 25,000 students from eight South Asian countries in 2020. 78% of them said that climate change has impacted their education. 5% claimed their school was unsafe and 19% reported their commute to school being affected. 25% also said they were unable or unwilling to focus due to heat or flooding. The heat isn’t the only problem: In 2017, Vietnam closed more than 325 schools across four provinces after a severe cyclone. And in 2015, 803 schools were shut down by a Typhoon in the Philippines for two weeks. Global North also has its share of problems. Nearly one fifth of American students went to school in areas that experienced federally-declared natural catastrophes during 2017 and 2019. Such events are now happening “with an increasing frequency, for a longer duration and over broader areas,” Jenkins says.

It is alarming to see the long-term consequences for those countries at the forefront of climate change. According to a U.S. non-profit, the National Bureau of Economic Research (2019 study), students from hotter countries scored lower on international standardized mathematics tests than those who live in cooler countries. Within the U.S., researchers found a 1°F increase in the average temperature over a school year decreases test scores by 0.002 standard deviations—the equivalent of just under 1% of a year’s worth of learning. It’s hard to quantify the economic impact of climate change on education systems, which includes everything from the cost of repairing damaged infrastructure to the knock-on effects on students’ future livelihoods, but the U.N. estimates the number is “likely to be in the scale of trillions of dollars.”

Jenkins says governments are slow to tackle threats to education within their climate plans. UNICEF works with 145,000 Indian schools on programs that share information and help northern states develop heat action plans. This helps schools assess the risks at various temperatures. For parents to take home, some cities provide pamphlets about heat risk.

However, these steps can only take you so far. Jenkins states that schools need to make large infrastructure investments in order to keep their children educated. This includes improved access and sanitation. Newly built schools need to be designed to be climate resilient—on stilts if they are in flood-prone areas, and with climate-specific architecture to mitigate heat risks.

COVID-19 lockdowns have given many schools experience in running lessons remotely, but in Punjab, teachers’ unions have urged the government not to view online classes as a long-term solution to rising heatwaves. They cited lasting “steep declines” in student engagement due to “ineffective online classes,” and warned of a lack of access to internet and devices in low-income homes.

Jenkins agrees that school closures “should be avoided at all times.” That’s not only because of the risk of deepening educational inequalities, he argues, but also because schools, as the main way children and parents interact with local government in many parts of the world, can be a crucial platform for sharing information about safety precautions during climate disasters. “Schools can be a really positive influence during those times, because children can engage their parents and their communities in the best way to deal with climate change.”

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