Experts have always emphasized the need for stronger programs for educating people about climate change. But a recent incident has shown that the educational system itself is also affected by this crisis.
The hospitalization of 120 students participating in fire and earthquake drills in Cabuyao, Laguna, was caused by the high heat index. This led to a recent call by Senator Sherwin Gatchalian to revert back to the old school calendar that begins in June.
While there are pros and cons, the climate angle must not be forgotten in the discussions. After all, it is unavoidable nowadays.
The shift to the current school calendar was not primarily caused by concerns about climate change. When first implemented in 2020, the Department of Education (DepEd) cited the challenges brought about by the pandemic and the strict lockdowns.
The change was formally made through the enactment of Republic Act No. 7977, which allowed for classes to begin no later than August 31.
Nonetheless, there are other advantages to the current schedule. For instance, aligning the opening of classes in primary and secondary schools with colleges and universities would make for a more standardized timeline across the entire educational system in the country.
Yet with the eventual return to face-to-face modes of instruction, the realities of the climate crisis are also becoming more prevalent.
The traditional calendar was set up to coincide with the Philippines’ two seasons: rainy (June to November) and dry (December to May). However, there have been observed changes in rainfall patterns in recent years.
Extreme weather disturbances disrupting classes are not new in the Philippines. Every Filipino has experienced having their classes suspended due to heavy rainfall, strong winds, a storm warning, and flashfloods.
With climate change making extreme weather events more unpredictable and/or intense, schools will face more risks, whether due to extremely high temperatures or heavy rainfall.
Whichever month the academic calendar starts, students, teachers, and other school personnel will still be exposed to different manifestations of climate change.
It is the responsibility of academic institutions to be as prepared as possible against these hazards to protect the well-being of everyone involved, and ensure that disruptions to learning and operations will be minimized, if not avoided.
To prevent more incidents like the one in Cabuyao, schools must be aware and alert about local weather conditions and significant changes. Constant communications with the weather bureau and the local government unit, access to real-time weather updating, and early warning systems suitable to local conditions are needed to properly plan school activities and minimize chances of disruptions.
At the bare minimum, schools must fully integrate climate change into their disaster preparedness plans. This should include protocols in place for climate-related threats that do not fit into the traditional view of disasters, such as extremely high temperatures.
Ideally, school infrastructures should also be adequate. For instance, proper ventilation systems combined with enough greenery through small gardens or nearby forests can reduce the heat index and avoid cases of dehydration and exhaustion among students and teachers.
Unfortunately, many public schools throughout the country lack the budget to make their buildings, spaces, and other infrastructures climate-proof. Costs can also be too high for capacity-building among personnel to implement the necessary programs and activities for this purpose.
As we have seen during the lockdowns, not all schools have the capacity or budget to effectively conduct online classes.
All these signs point to the need for a massive transformation of the Philippine education system to become more climate-resilient. It is up to the leadership of DepEd, CHED, and TESDA, with support from other agencies and lawmakers to implement the necessary long-term programs and reforms for academic institutions to adapt to the changing climate.
What should not also be lost in the discussions is the full integration of climate change into the curricula of primary and secondary schools, a long-awaited move that can accelerate a culture of ecological citizenship among Filipinos.
A truly resilient educational system is an indicator of a nation that is capable of addressing climate change or any other threat. It does not happen with just a change in the school calendar.
John Leo is the deputy executive director for programs and campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific.