Earth Day provides students an opportunity to advocate for climate change efforts
Programs like those at Rialto USD support students with environment-based learning experiences

More than 50 years since the first Earth Day was held to raise awareness of the need to reduce pollution and protect the planet’s natural resources for future generations, students continue to take on the challenge.

In Rialto Unified School District, students organized a free event on April 21 — the Youth Climate Action Summit — for any interested high school student in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

STEM CARES is so relevant right now because climate action and community-based climate resilience are knowledge and skills that are necessary now and will increasingly become relevant in the future.”
Juanita Chan-Roden, Rialto USD science and career programs agent

“The purpose of the event is to inform students about environmental burdens and climate issues in the Southern Inland region, and then inspire them to volunteer, organize and advocate action around these local topics,” said Juanita Chan-Roden, Rialto USD science and career programs agent.

Rialto USD is no stranger to fostering student advocacy and understanding of climate issues. The district received a 2022 Golden Bell Award for its innovative STEM CARES (Cultivating Active Responsible Environmental Stewards) program, which provides environment-based learning experiences that address climate issues, promotes awareness of the effects of global climate change in local communities, and engages students in creative solutions.

The program was developed in 2015 to allow students to more effectively learn about climate change in depth and harness their voices in advocating for action in everything from school facilities and operations planning to resource conservation and energy-efficiency strategies.

Additionally, students are able to collaborate and share ideas with community changemakers, including community nonprofit environmental justice activists, local politicians, water board members, air quality managers and district leaders, Chan-Roden explained.

“Students gain valuable experiences about networking and introduction to local phenomena that may not be explored in their regular science classes,” she said. “STEM CARES is so relevant right now because climate action and community-based climate resilience are knowledge and skills that are necessary now and will increasingly become relevant in the future as we grapple with the economic challenges of increasing extreme weather events on all industries in the Inland Empire, California, nationally and on a global scale. Everyone agrees that building student capacity around being a global citizen is a vital outcome of TK-12 education — initiatives like STEM CARES actually builds these capacities through civic engagement.”

color illustration of flowers, clouds and butterflies floating around an Earth held in two hands
Climate impacts on schools

One in four teachers, principals and district leaders reported that climate change is impacting their school or district to some extent, according to a nationally representative survey of educators in 2022 by the EdWeek Research Center. And an additional 18 percent said that while their district has not yet been affected by climate change, they believe it poses an imminent threat.

Meanwhile, the Legislative Analyst’s Office released a series of reports in 2022 outlining the impacts of climate change across California. The state faces five major hazards as the result of climate change linked to increasing temperatures, a changing hydrology and rising sea levels will lead to:

  • Higher average temperatures and periods of extreme heat.
  • More frequent and intense droughts.
  • Increased risk of floods.
  • More severe wildfires.
  • Coastal flooding and erosion.

For K-12 schools, more extreme weather events and conditions can negatively affect student learning, school facilities and district budgets, the LAO reported. Students are likely to experience more frequent climate-related school closures, and schools may need to quickly shift between in-person and remote learning to accommodate.

distant view of a fire burning hills behind a neighborhood

Additionally, districts will face higher and more volatile cost pressures in dealing with the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, according to the report. These may include higher utility bills on hotter days to significant recovery efforts after major emergencies such as fires or flooding. Furthermore, school facilities will require modifications to withstand the harsh impacts of climate change. Districts with smaller budgets and those that serve higher numbers of lower-income families could be at a higher risk as they are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“Climate change will have increasingly severe impacts on early childhood and K-12 education — particularly from more frequent wildfires and extreme heat waves. These threats will layer on top of schools’ existing challenges, such as addressing achievement gaps and meeting the needs of English learners,” the LAO wrote. “Confronting the effects of climate change will be challenging. However, the consequences of inaction could be even more severe, and will worsen over time as climate change impacts become more frequent and intense. In many cases, schools will struggle to prepare for these impacts on their own and will need state guidance and support.”