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Climate change is coming. How can schools avoid shut downs?
Update: This story has been changed from its original version.
This year, there will be eight sleeping bags in the emergency operations center of Portland Public Schools, just in case staff get stuck there overnight.
That's one of the lessons learned from an extraordinary winter season that caused PPS to close its schools 10 times for icy and snowy weather.
PPS Emergency Manager Molly Emmons has already had to respond to a different sort of unexpected weather this school year: heat. On Sept 5, the district closed two hours early due to a heat wave and terrible air quality from the Eagle Creek fire.
As in much of the temperate part of the state, few of the district's aging buildings have air conditioning.
"It was our first real experience with inclement weather being heat," Emmons said. "So that was a new experience for us."
Oregon Health Authority's Emily York also had to scramble due to the heat. Her son was supposed to start his first day of kindergarten that day. York, who coordinates the state health agency's Climate and Health Program, wondered at first if that was the right call. But when she was able to look at the data, she found that hospital visits for asthma and related conditions spiked that day — 20 percent higher than normal, and many of the patients were children.
Researchers say extreme weather events — and many other reasons schools might need to close — are going to become a lot more common as climate change progresses. Flooding, wildfire, heat, windstorms, drought, landslides and pandemic diseases are all considered more likely under climate change. All could cause schools to close unexpectedly, putting strain on students, families and the economy as a whole.
Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, studies how climate change will affect the Pacific Northwest. Snover said that while she can't predict if Portland is more likely to see severe winter storms, "there are some clear things that can be expected, and that is more warmer conditions overall: More frequent heat waves, longer heat waves are certainly expected under every single scenario that we look at for the future." Snover also said localized flooding and vector-borne diseases will become more common.
York said there are direct health impacts of climate change — such as the wildfire-related asthma spike — but there are also indirect consequences. If schools close, the resulting impacts — from mental health to missed meals — will affect students' learning ability and the community as a whole.
"It's a really complex topic when we think about all of the ways that climate can have an impact," she said.
The Oregon Department of Education does not have a plan for how to manage the possibility of increasing numbers of school closures, in contrast to agencies like the Oregon Health Authority, which has an extensive website on the issue.
"Flexibility with respect to instructional time is built into our administrative rules," ODE's Emily Narazov said in an email. Narazov explained that school districts can apply for waivers for educational requirements.
But there are ways to build flexibility into the school system that don't skip instructional time.
A school based in Gresham with almost 500 students didn't have to close at all during the inclement weather. That's because all of its students do their work online.
"Every time there was a snow day in the district, our kids were still required to log on and do their coursework," said Metro East Web Academy Associate (MEWA) Principal Christina Struyk-Bonn. "And then we didn't have to tag on days at the end either because we were able to keep pace with our schedule."
Perhaps the most terrifying prospect under climate change is pandemic illness, such as the flu. A major tool in the Centers for Disease Control's toolbox for controlling an outbreak is closing the nation's schools for up to 12 weeks.
A 2009 study through the National Institutes of Health says that closing schools for four weeks would cost the nation between $10 billion and $47 billion.
The study also notes that many health care professionals would have to stay home with their kids, resulting in a loss of between 6 percent and 19 percent of the very people needed to care for the ill and control the spread of disease.
Mosquitos, ticks and other disease-carrying pests may be able to start living farther north, too.
Whenever schools are closed unexpectedly, parents of younger children or children with disabilities usually have to take off work. Non-salary school employees (so, not teachers or administrators) usually don't get paid for those days either. That impacts the region's economy.
The OHA expects that climate change will push marginalized families over the edge into food insecurity.
"Even just missing a couple days of school can be a setback" for families who depend on school lunch programs for needed nutrition, York said. She added that research shows that up to 45 percent of children suffer mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, after a major natural disaster. "There are all of these other pathways in which our health might be impacted by climate change."
In the Benson Polytechnic High School auditorium last week, high schoolers were triaged by the severity of their injuries. The drill was part of the third-annual collaboration between the Portland Office of Emergency Management, Portland Fire & Rescue and PPS, called the Youth Disaster Academy.
One hundred students signed up to be part of a day-long rotation through various emergency scenarios, such as fire, search and rescue or other hazards. Organizers hope that these youths will soon be the next firefighters, ambulance workers or Neighborhood Emergency Team volunteers, among other first responders.
"I see our kids as ambassadors for our preparedness message," Emmons said.
"They can spread that message of preparedness to their families at home and to their friends," agreed Dan Douthit, the Office of Emergency Management's spokesman.
The message is getting through.
"Now that I know that I need to prepare myself, it makes me want to walk around with an emergency kit," said Benson sophomore Rose Chipen.
The Oregon Health Authority's York said schools should be planning for climate change through infrastructure, such as better HVAC systems, but also through teaching skills like these.
"We need to be teaching our children how to navigate stress. Things like that are going to make us more resilient to change," she said.
York added that schools could use unexpected closures to talk about the bigger picture of climate change and what is already happening to plan for mitigating its effects.
Benson sophomore Brian Torres said he wanted to sign up for the academy because of how much he had heard of the risk of earthquakes, but he also acknowledged climate change will bump up the frequency of disasters.
"I think they're going to be more common, and it's better to be prepared," Torres said.
Update (10/26/17): This story was corrected to reflect that Emily York's child is a boy.
Update (10/31/17): Some researchers believe that earthquakes will become more common under climate change, but the Climate Impacts Group says that will not be the case for Oregon, so a reference to earthquakes was eliminated.