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How climate crisis affects education in South Africa

How climate crisis affects education in South Africa
Grade one learners hard at work in a Cape Town school. 8 March 2018. (Photo by Leila Dougan)

In many countries, young people are at the forefront of climate action, and South Africa is no exception. But it is important to consider how the country’s schools and its learners are already being affected by climate change.

By Climate Change and Heat-Health Study Group

On 20 September 2019, millions of people participated in the global #ClimateStrike action – the culmination of protest that began with the School Strikes for the Climate initiative, led by Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg.

Young people have boycotted school, blocked traffic, protested at parliaments, and targeted polluting companies because they recognise that the wreckage induced by global warming has reached a critical point. Even with the caps envisaged by the Paris Accord, greenhouse gas emissions may already be too high to avoid a catastrophic tipping point.

South Africa’s long history of youth activism for democracy, including school boycotts and youth marches, reminds us how such activism can be crucial for inspiring adults who may have become demoralised by the seeming intractability of victory. With the stakes being so high in the fight against ecocide, the energy and idealism of youth is needed more than ever before.

As climate protest action continues to unfold around the country and the world, it is worth pausing to consider how South Africa’s schools – and its 15 million schoolgoers – are already being affected by climate change in a region that is warming at twice the global average. Southern Africa is now considered to be a climate change “hot spot”, with rising temperatures, droughts, flooding, and unpredictable weather systems set to become the new normal.

It’s a sad reality that many South African public schools still have classrooms with poor insulation and little natural ventilation. Converted shipping containers, for example, or structures made of prefabricated sheeting with corrugated iron roofs are used as low-cost alternatives to more expensive brick buildings.

A study in Johannesburg, which has a relatively mild climate, found that temperatures reached as high as 47.5°C in the containers and the large majority of students reported experiencing heat-health symptoms every day, including drowsiness, poor concentration and thirst. And overcrowded classrooms mean that the children themselves generate a considerable heat load. Some schools in South Africa have as many as 50 children in a class, making for intolerable conditions. Heat exposure can increase irritability, aggression and violence, a major concern given the rates of physical and sexual violence in schools in SA, both pupil-on-pupil and between teacher and pupil.

In classes with poor ventilation, levels of CO2 or stuffiness rise together with temperature, and children experience symptoms characteristic of the “sick buildings syndrome”. These symptoms affect concentration and student learning, and even school attendance and rates of asthma attacks. The window opening is a key means of removing heat and CO2. However, in towns and cities with high pollution levels, such as Emalahleni, one of the most polluted towns in the world, doing so would increase exposure to outdoor air pollution. Heat extremes also raise exposure to environmental toxins, which is worrying, as many schools in South Africa are located near areas with high levels of toxic substances, such as major roads, mine dumps and industrial operations.

Not surprisingly, educational performance suffers under these conditions. In a recent review involving 18 studies, the authors calculated that students in classrooms with an indoor temperature of 30°C scored 20% lower in tests than those in classes around 20°C (all other factors being equal). In fact, the performance of adolescents appears to be more heat sensitive than the performance of adults in occupational settings. Added to this is the fact that many young people live in housing that is poorly insulated and thus vulnerable to heat. In informal settlements and some formal low-cost housing, for example, indoor temperatures maybe 4 to 5°C warmer than outdoors – conditions hardly conducive to completing homework, preparing for examinations and quality sleep.

Beyond the question of hot classrooms and homes, climate change will increasingly affect water security and quality at schools, with further implications for the health of children. Droughts may threaten the availability of water in schools that are dependent on boreholes or rivers, while floods increase contamination of water with infectious agents and toxins. Most water- and food-borne infections, particularly those caused by bacteria, are heat sensitive: bacteria thrive in warmer temperatures. Without adequate sanitation facilities in schools, close contact between schoolchildren makes the transmission of such infections all the more likely.

There are major equity issues at stake here. Adolescents who have attended well-resourced schools with temperatures carefully controlled for optimal concentration will compete for jobs or places at university alongside those who wrote school-leaving examinations in temperatures above 40°C and were drowsy and poorly hydrated. It doesn’t help that key examinations are generally written in the summer months in South Africa.

These equity concerns reflect the broader principle that as the effects of climate change play themselves out, they will follow the patterns of power and inequality – the people of the south are likely to be affected more than those of the north, the poor infinitely more so than the rich, women more so than men, and children more so than adults. Aside from its obvious immediate benefits, then, climate change adaptation in schools may make an under-recognised but important contribution to countering inequities in South Africa.

Long-term initiatives to improve thermal comfort in the built environment are clearly critical, especially replacing container classrooms and prefabricated buildings with properly ventilated brick classrooms. While the Department of Basic Education mentions environmental factors such as ventilation and the hazards of non-brick structures in its school infrastructure standards, these are yet to be fully actualised. Provision of safe water and sanitation in schools also remains an ongoing challenge.

Meanwhile, a number of cheap, low-tech interventions could help to make hot classrooms more tolerable and reduce symptoms of heat stress. This means thinking beyond air conditioning, which is both expensive and unsustainable.

Possible interventions include the provision of cold water at regular intervals, and application of damp cloths to the body, which cools as the water evaporates (a method once used by the ancient Egyptians). Schools could also consider substituting closed shoes with sandals, using light-coloured, loose clothing, and forgoing the wearing of blazers in summer. Changing school hours during the hottest seasons is another possibility, with either earlier starting times or a longer lunchtime break and later finishing hours. Planting trees in schools would provide shade and cooling, and other health and environmental benefits. A “cooling room” could be created in the school, where, for example, fans are installed on the walls, the roofs are painted white, plants are hung on the walls and trees are planted nearby. During extremely hot days pupils could spend time in the cooling room during breaks or after school, and the room could be used for examinations.

Despite their relatively low cost, implementing these interventions may initially be met with scepticism from stakeholders. Many people view heat only as a nuisance factor or a normal occurrence to be tolerated, rather than as a modifiable risk factor influencing health and learning. This perception needs to change. We now need a supportive policy framework for heat-health interventions in schools and a firm commitment from education and health ministries to act now to safeguard schools against the pernicious impacts of heat. MC

Fiona Scorgie, Matthew Chersich, Caradee Wright and Angela Mathee are with the Climate Change and Heat-Health Study Group.

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