In 2011, we launched the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) recognition award and began honoring schools, districts, and postsecondary institutions for their work to: 1) reduce environmental impacts and save money; 2) improve health and wellness; and 3) teach effective environmental and sustainability education.
Building on the award, ED has engaged the public on sustainability, environment, and infrastructure issues through several channels, including a monthly newsletter, ongoing social media, an annual Green Strides Tour, and the Green Strides School Sustainability Resources Hub. All of these offerings, like the award, spotlight resources, opportunities, and best practices in school sustainability, healthy environments, and environmental learning.
New climate action initiatives under the Biden Administration and leadership within the Department are now helping to catalyze a broader role. Executive Order 14008 directed all agencies to develop Climate Action Plans. This is not the first time that ED has endeavored a climate action, sustainability, or environmental justice plan. However, it was the first time that the group developing the CAP considered not only ED facilities and operational, but also how public-facing ED programs, guidance, policies, technical assistance, data collection, and civil rights action can be supportive of reducing the footprint of schools across the nation, improving health, increasing climate resiliency, and improving students’ environmental literacy.
As part of this effort, this August, ED undertook a series of five public listening sessions under the broad umbrella of climate action. Spanning environmental and outdoor learning, preparation for the green economy, K-12 and postsecondary sustainability, and infrastructure, these calls were designed to allow key stakeholders and federal agencies, as well as the public at-large an open forum with the Department to generate creative ideas of steps that ED might take to support this work. You can find recordings of these sessions here.
From over a decade of public engagement in this realm and plenty of research, we know that school facilities have a direct impact on student learning, student and staff health, and school finances. We’ve seen that schools that take steps conserve energy and water, use efficient and active transportation, incorporate sustainable food use, implement rigorous school environmental health standards, and prepare for climate impacts can offer hands-on learning opportunities for students through their healthy, sustainable, and modern facilities and grounds. These learning experiences can help students prepare for the green economy, understand human impact on the environment, and become equipped to advance sustainability, as well as the challenges that they will be required to address after graduation.
School infrastructure considerations, such as school environmental health, indoor air quality, and contaminant controls that have come to the forefront because of COVID and the Flint water crisis are related to schools’ efficiency and conservation efforts. Many schools that will use recovery funds to upgrade their facilities to meet EPA and CDC indoor air quality or water quality guidelines also have a tremendous opportunity now to reduce district utility costs for both energy and water, as well as their collective impact on the environment.
Put simply, schools can reduce their costs, improve the health of building occupants and the planet, and boost achievement and equity, in one fell swoop, if they have the right tools and expertise. It’s nothing short of a once-in-a-generation opportunity!
For this reason, it is timely that the Department’s new and improved Climate Adaptation Plan (CAP) looks at the many ways that ED can use its leadership; policies, programs, and guidance; and technical assistance to increase the climate resilience of state and local educational agencies, schools, and institutions of higher education. More broadly, our new CAP looks at every available tool our federal education agency has at its disposal to prioritize equitable access to healthy, safe, sustainable, 21st century learning environments and sustainability learning that equips students to face the challenges of the future.
The CAP is intended to be broad in scope and offer many possibilities to support safe, healthy, sustainable, and equitable school environments and sustainability learning. I’d invite you to have a look at the full Climate Adaptation Plan available online here. This new plan offers ED a framework for bolstering efforts already occurring nationwide, bringing sustainable, healthy, resilient, and equitable into the mainstream of federal education policy.
Andrea Suarez Falken is Director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and ED’s Facilities, Health, and Environment Liaison, as well as Director of the Recognizing Inspiring School Employees Award.
 Many agencies, including ED, are calling these Climate Adaptation Plans, which is the more accurate term for the task as it was provided to agencies by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.