October 19, 2023

A new national campaign to transform schools into climate resilient locations has its roots in Multnomah County where local young people have been calling for climate justice, fossil fuel free buildings, and more.

The Green New Deal for Schools Campaign is a national effort introduced in recent weeks by the Sunrise Movement.

The ambitious project seeks to transform schools into climate resilient buildings where students learn a climate curriculum alongside traditional scholastic offerings, and all students can access free healthy food, among other priorities. 

One of the campaign organizers is Adah Crandall, a recent Portland Public Schools (PPS) graduate and member of the Multnomah County Advisory Committee on Sustainability and Innovation. Thanks to Crandall and her classmates' activism, PPS is the first school in the U.S. to adopt a Climate Crisis Response, Climate Justice and Sustainable Practices Policy. The policy includes commitment to climate justice education for students, fossil fuel free buildings, and more. Recently, Multnomah County completed a project to help PPS further these goals.

Multnomah County and PPS teamed up to apply for technical assistance from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The assistance utilized a series of workshops with County and PPS staff, in addition to 3 other counties and school districts across the west, to evaluate the opportunities and barriers for using schools as clean air and cooling shelters during periods of smoke and extreme heat. Many PPS buildings are older and lack modern systems that can handle today’s climate extremes. For example, only 12 of 82 PPS schools have air conditioning. When the schools were built, typical conditions did not warrant the expense of air conditioning. Extreme temperatures and/or smoke can make conditions at school potentially unsafe, particularly during summer when many schools remain active and at the beginning and end of the school year. In recent years outdoor school activities at PPS have been canceled due to smoke.  

The technical assistance from EPA provides details on how schools can upgrade their facilities to better protect staff and students from climate extremes. For example, improved filtration and air circulation can help filter out air pollution, including from wildfire smoke, and filter out airborne viral particles like COVID-19. The published report, Schools as Community Cleaner Air and Cooling Centers, has detailed resources including technical specifications, prioritization criteria, readiness checklist and educational materials. The EPA has also created short reference guides for teachers, administrators, principals and caregivers. These resources are intended to better prepare schools and communities to better cope with the new reality of climate extremes. 

“We can help students, parents and teachers feel less anxious about climate disruptions through good preparation,” said John Wasiutynski, Director of Sustainability for Multnomah County. “These practical tools give sound science-based mitigation strategies that are useful for school administrators, teachers, parents, policymakers, and anyone in the public who is eager to learn more about how to stay safe during times of smoke or excessive heat.”

“I am proud of this partnership,” said Aaron Presberg, Senior Program Manager of Energy & Sustainability at Portland Public Schools. “We took the time to learn from one another, and from industry leading experts, to understand not only what PPS can do, but really what any institution can do, to better prepare for these extreme conditions.” 

“EPA is eager to find these partnership opportunities that can make a difference for communities.” Said Abby Hall, EPA project manager, Office of Policy. “Under Administrator Reagan's leadership we are working to ensure every community in the US is a climate resilient community.”