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Coronavirus offers a test of how schools could prepare for climate change

This story was produced as part of the nine-part series “Are We Ready? How Schools Are preparing – and Not Preparing – Children for Climate Change,” reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Jamar McKneely (background) tours a science and technology event at Edna Karr High School, one of the schools in his InspireNOLA charter school network. Credit: Photo: Shandrell Briscoe for InspireNOLA Charter Schools

On the eve of each hurricane season, Jamar McKneely worries that this one will bring the next Katrina. McKneely was a teacher at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans when the 2005 hurricane devastated the city and closed his school for months.  

But instead of a deadly hurricane, this year brought another crisis that shut the city’s school system: the coronavirus pandemic. McKneely, who now leads InspireNOLA Charter Schools, is trying to use this latest emergency to prepare for future natural disasters and disease outbreaks that are worsening due to climate change. His schools have been scrambling to set up online learning, connect students with virtual counseling and get laptops into the hands of families — steps McKneely says will be invaluable if another hurricane disrupts education.

“We are building all of that now to make sure we’re better prepared,” he said. “For us it might be the coronavirus or the next epidemic, but it could easily be the next hurricane as well.” 

Like McKneely, some educators, government officials and policy experts around the country say the coronavirus carries lessons for another global crisis of our time, climate change. So far, the pandemic has revealed the challenges of conducting education remotely as well as uneven access to Wi-Fi and devices such as laptops. Overcoming those difficulties could equip schools for a future in which severe floods and fires increasingly batter communities and pause in-person education. The coronavirus could serve as a reminder to educators to reinforce the value of science education and the need for quality mental health services for kids.     

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