Back to School: Impact of Climate Change on Education

Students across Oregon are now back in school. Due to a warming climate, for many agricultural families, the growing seasons no longer coincide with the school year. Families have to pull their children out of school earlier, and some students are falling behind.

I met one such family in their house, an 8×8 one-room cabin. They had bedbugs but no bed. The family slept on the floor. The floorboards were the color of floodwater. And their belongings seemed chosen not for their value but for their buoyancy—Fanta bottles, a plastic tarp, and a few knick knacks that all looked washed ashore. The roof was made of tin and heated up during the day, keeping the room unbearably hot in the evenings after the family had spent the day working outside. There were electrical hazards and structural deficiencies, but the father would not complain. The housing was provided by his employer. If he complained, the employer could easily replace him. As the climate has gotten hotter, more workers moved up from California to Oregon.

He had to pull his kids out of school earlier this year because the growing season began earlier. But the same was true the year before, and the year before that. The growing seasons used to correspond with the summer break. But the season now starts while his children are still in school. His children are falling behind their peers, according to teachers, because each year he has had to pull them out earlier.

In his son’s classroom, students put their chairs up on desks at the end of each day and the school exhales the students out. The chairs came down again at 8:00 a.m., when school starts and inhales the students back in. The frame of his son’s chair in the back of the classroom is now still, like the ribcage of something holding its breath. When I asked the father how he felt about his son’s chances for graduating, he said he felt like he was doing the same, just holding his breath.

In other parts of the world, the impact of climate change on education falls disproportionately on girls. A UNESCO report highlights that “girls are often the first to feel the impacts of climate change. It cites the examples of Pakistan and Uganda, where climate-related shocks result in far more girls being taken out of school than boys.

The children of the father I met have a strip of grass to play on. But that strip of grass is right next to a field sprayed with pesticides. Every time his children picked up a ball or fall down laughing in the grass, they risk damaging their DNA with pesticide exposure. There are federal regulations to prevent spraying so close to homes, but Oregon is seeking an exemption from that rule.

In this family’s story, and in their DNA, is the story of how climate change, social justice, and education are interrelated. They are already back in California starting a new year, trying to help their kids catch up in school and breathe a little easier.