COMMENTARY: Climate change will drive major changes in student learning needs

Credit: California National Guard / Flickr

Burned-out cars and chimney stacks cover the landscape in Santa Rosa on Oct. 14, 2017, after the wildfires that spread across Sonoma County.

As California’s wildfires attest, climate change is here, and its effects are being felt now. What President Joe Biden calls a “code red” moment should cause deep reflection on how all of us can prepare for a hotter world.

California students, like their peers around the country, see this danger clearly and have led an incredible and admirable outpouring of activism to prevent the most terrible impacts of climate change. Their voices — and ours — are critical to ensuring humans can continue to thrive on this planet. As we work for the best outcome, however, we must prepare for all outcomes, including the worst. The social disruptions predicted by climate scientists are coming into nearly every aspect of our daily lives, including how students learn.

Climate change introduces several new social forces with the potential for dramatic impacts on the times, places and modes of schooling. Consider the impact of human migration. Whether in the short term as families escape natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, or in the long term as weather impacts where we can sustainably live, farm, and work, the children of climate change will be more likely to move around the country during their 13 years of primary and secondary schooling. Within the United States alone, 13.1 million people could be forced to migrate by 2100 due to climate change — equivalent to the size of the Great Migration of the early 20th century.

When a student change schools, they’re forced to adapt to a new social environment, new curriculum and new set of expectations, often without the historical assessment data their previous teachers could draw upon. Climate migrants will likely move to communities already struggling to build housing, transportation and schooling infrastructure to support rapidly expanding populations. This combination of social disruptions, learning disruptions and trauma can impact psychological well-being and academic performance for students for years afterward by, for example, disconnecting students from their friends, putting them in environments that make it more difficult to study or increasing the pressure on secondary students to drop out of school to support their families financially.

A warming climate will affect school facilities in other ways that demand capital investment. A 2017 investigation by The 74 showed 11 of the nation’s 50 largest school districts had a significant number of classrooms without air conditioning. In the most recent statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Education, 30% of schools had air conditioning or ventilation systems rated as being in fair or poor condition. More time spent in hot schools reduces assessment scores and can even lower on-time high school graduation, according to one study.

Fortunately, the lessons schools around the country have learned from the pandemic can be applied to support learning in the middle of dramatic social change.

  • Just as Covid turned attention to school ventilation, climate change should center focus on schools’ ability to manage severe weather. With wide disparities in school facility funding across California, many districts may be unable by themselves to make the changes to school buildings required to ensure students can learn safely and comfortably.
  • Remote learning is an important backup plan when schools close — but a true backup plan cannot also be an afterthought. Schools should continue to engage in thoughtful and well-resourced planning around the tools and techniques of virtual and hybrid instruction that ensure students can continue learning with rigor from home.
  • Professional learning plans should prioritize helping teachers quickly understand and act on students’ instructional needs. As students move between virtual and in-person instruction, and from school to school, their teachers will have a greater need to quickly understand what students are ready to learn next and provide learning supports that are specifically tailored to what that student needs to know in the moment.
  • When people move, they place added pressure on school systems, just as they place added pressure on power, water and roads. As cities and states begin building their long-term infrastructure and policy plans around climate change, superintendents and state departments of education have a critical role to play in ensuring governments can adequately and equitably care for the needs of their newest citizens.

Crisis can often create opportunity. The extraordinary pressures put on school systems during the pandemic led to new innovations in remote and hybrid instruction. As climate change places similar pressure on school systems, their success will be determined ultimately by a willingness to learn from that experience and find creative ways to understand and maximize student learning.


Chase Nordengren is a senior research scientist at NWEA, a not-for-profit organization that creates assessment solutions that precisely measure growth and proficiency—and provide insights to help tailor instruction. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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