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Opinion: Renovating California schools to protect children from the climate crisis

From kindergartners to high school students, millions of young Californians are back in the classroom. As parents of the state, we want our children to thrive in healthy, modern learning environments. But California’s school buildings have major problems: they are old, polluting and fail to protect students from the worsening climate crisis.

The majority of our school buildings were designed for a California where triple-digit heat waves, wildfires and superstorms strike less frequently. And because our schools still use fossil fuels, they actively create pollution that makes these problems even worse.

Fully electric buildings are the solution: they are healthier, more comfortable and do not create carbon pollution. A new bill, currently pending in the Legislature, would help school districts achieve this goal by creating a blueprint for healthy, sustainable, climate-resilient schools in the state. With a school bond bill on the horizon and new public dollars to go electric, California can prioritize student health and transition away from fossil fuels by fully electrifying our campuses.

Currently, the vast majority of schools in our state use fossil fuels for heating and cooking. This creates indoor air pollution. Modern all-electric buildings are better. Electric heat pumps can heat And cool a school, providing much-needed air conditioning to stuffy classrooms. Modern filtration systems remove everything from toxic smoke from wildfires to pathogens like the coronavirus. But many schools don’t have functioning HVAC systems, leading to extremely poor ventilation. It’s terrible for children: poorly ventilated and polluted classrooms can reduce students’ cognitive functions by half.

Air conditioning and air filtration not only protect student health, they also improve learning. A study of Los Angeles schools found that upgrading facilities could have resulted in achievement gains of up to 10 percent.

The modernization and electrification of schools will also help protect the population in the event of a disaster. Schools often serve as evacuation centers during events like wildfires. If they are equipped with solar panels, batteries and heat pumps, they can provide air conditioning even if a brutal heatwave interrupts the electricity grid.

Additionally, continuing to install dirty fossil fuel equipment in schools is a waste of public dollars. California districts spend $8 billion each year building and upgrading school facilities. If old gas boilers like those found in most schools were simply replaced with new gas boilers, these would likely need to be replaced again before the end of their useful life.

Statewide planning is essential to making safe, electrified schools a reality. With more than 11,000 buildings covering 730 million square feet and more than 125,000 acres of land, California’s school system has a vast footprint. We need a plan now to make all these buildings stop creating pollution, because California law requires the state to be carbon neutral by 2045.

In the absence of statewide leadership, some school districts are developing their own plans. Earlier this year, the San Diego Unified School District passed a resolution to phase out the use of fossil fuels. The district now requires new construction to be all-electric, and when fossil fuel equipment breaks down, it is replaced with clean electric machines. More school districts should follow this approach.

To move forward, Senate Bill 394 must pass the Assembly and return to the Senate before the legislative session ends Thursday, then sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. It is equally crucial that it is funded. Currently, the Legislature has not provided the $10 million needed for the planning process. State leaders must develop a plan to fund this program.

More dollars for school electrification could come next year, if Californians can vote on a bond that funds schools across the state. If the bond passes, it would provide billions for school infrastructure. But it’s crucial that it aligns with the state’s climate goals so we’re not investing public money in outdated systems.

We don’t need to wait to get started. Last year, the state Legislature set aside $20 million to help schools transition to electric heating, cooling and ventilation. The agency charged with implementing these funds has allocated millions more for the effort. Together, these funds will help approximately 200 schools install heat pumps, providing a model for other schools and districts.

Federal funds can also be used to help schools electrify. The Inflation Reduction Act allocates billions of dollars to build more resilient buildings, including tax credits that cover 30 percent of the costs of new geothermal heat pumps.

Children have the right to modern, safe learning environments that do not contribute to the climate crisis. California officials must use billions of dollars available to upgrade school infrastructure to reduce fossil fuel pollution, putting the health and futures of our students first.

Jonathan Klein is the co-founder and CEO of the national climate nonprofit UndauntedK12 and a former school teacher. Leah C. Stokes is an associate professor of environmental policy at UC Santa Barbara and an advisor to Rewiring America.

Los Angeles Times

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