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(NEW YORK) – As the massive KNP compound fire burned nearby in Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers Union School District Superintendent Susan Sherwood was in her school gymnasium trying to ‘eliminate smoke with fans. The air quality had gotten so bad and students were coughing and complaining about their burning eyes that she made the difficult choice of shutting down a single school district in California for almost two weeks – the most long since he never had to close due to a fire in his 26-year tenure.

“We’ve had fires before, but it’s a big fire,” Sherwood told ABC News. “Everyone oh and ah because of the thunderstorms, but we don’t. We say, oh no, fire.”

The KNP complex, which was ignited by lightning on September 9, burned more than 49,000 acres and led to dangerous air quality conditions in the weeks that followed.

The smoke got so bad one day in mid-September that Sherwood decided to send all 100 students from K-8 School home for independent study – an option available statewide this school year due to of the coronavirus pandemic. Back to school this week, they are required to wear masks indoors, in line with COVID-19 mitigation measures, and are encouraged to wear them outdoors as well due to the wildfire in course, which is 11% content.

“It could go on for a while,” Sherwood said. “You can only take it one day at a time, and you still have to make decisions based on what’s best for students and staff.”

Students in the small California school district weren’t the only ones affected by extreme weather events. Education publication The 74 recently estimated that more than 1.1 million children have been kept out of classrooms so far this school year – from heatwaves in Colorado and Ohio to flooding. and other damage from Hurricane Ida and its remains in states such as Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

On Tuesday, a month after Hurricane Ida made landfall in southern Louisiana, more than 70,000 students were still unable to return to their classrooms due to damage from the Category 4 storm , said state officials – representing about 1 in 10 of the state’s K -12 students.

“I don’t know of any State in the Union that has faced more challenges than the State of Louisiana. Not only have we faced a global health pandemic, social and political unrest at times, but also a number of named storms that have been really aggressive and painful for our coasts, “state superintendent of education Cade Brumley told state lawmakers at an education committee meeting Tuesday. “Last year we faced Zeta, then Laura and Delta, and this year we faced Ida.”

More than 300,000 students were forced out of the classroom after Ida made landfall on August 29 near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, and in the weeks that followed, principals felt an “emergency “to reopen” as quickly as possible, “said Brumley.

Many have tackled difficult issues such as restoring electricity and running water, performing environmental tests, and obtaining the right personnel and products. Some districts are also integrating COVID-19 tests into their reopening logistics. When the New Orleans Public School District began welcoming students back in mid-September, it also revived free weekly tests for dozens of school sites and strongly encouraged students and staff to do so. test on their return from the storm.

New Orleans public school leaders reported only “minimal to moderate damage” from Ida, in part thanks to a $ 2 billion infrastructure investment after Hurricane Katrina.

Brumley noted the apparent success of buildings constructed after Katrina to “weather the storm better.” But there are ways for the state to improve, he said.

“As a state and as an educational community, we need to have a better playbook,” he said. “You plan for the worst and you adapt to the circumstances, but we have to be in a better position for it. And it’s not in place the way we would like it to be in place.”

“We have to think about how we can harden the grid, so to speak, so that our structures can withstand the elements of nature that come to us,” he continued.

Schools across the country need to make infrastructure improvements, especially to withstand natural disasters, although according to a 2021 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, there is an annual funding gap of $ 38 billion for regularly modernize public school facilities. A bill proposed by Congress would invest $ 40 billion in green infrastructure projects and other improvements to help public schools prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Extreme weather events like hurricanes and fires are expected to become more destructive due to climate change. Tackling the climate crisis will be a “problem for the whole of society,” including the education sector, according to Laura Schifter, senior associate of the Aspen Institute.

Schifter leads the organization’s K12 Climate Action initiative, which recently released a report recommending policies to tackle climate change in the education sector, from the environmental footprint of schools to teaching.

“Still a lot of people in education don’t see climate change as their job,” Schifter told ABC News. “There is a really important opportunity for the education sector to realize its role and responsibility in tackling climate change and also to better prepare the sector to be equipped to adapt and build resilience as the climate change is getting worse. “

Solutions can range from equipping schools with solar power to act as community hubs during power outages, to replacing asphalt with sustainable green schoolyards to reduce heat and flooding, in the fight against eco-anxiety and trauma related to extreme weather events in students. Schifter mentioned organizations like The Trust for Public Land, which has turned hundreds of asphalt schoolyards across the country into sustainable playgrounds, as part of an effort to tackle climate impacts in schools.

Virtual learning will be key to limiting learning interruptions due to extreme weather conditions, K12 Climate Action said in its report, noting that measures adopted due to the pandemic have helped improve access, “the majority of these efforts are not long-term solutions and will expire within one to three years. “

“To see schools shut down on the West Coast because of smoke issues… or schools here in Maryland forced to close on hot days because they have inadequate infrastructure – all of these things are going to continue to disrupt learning and are going to continue to be a problem for schools to come, ”Schifter said. “But one of the things that’s also very exciting about what schools can do is that they can also help communities build resilience for extreme weather conditions.”

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