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The BCTF’s International Solidarity Think Tank: Teachers Responding to Climate Emergencies

BC Teachers' Federation and Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico members met in Vancouver to share their experiences as teachers with climate emergencies. Sunjum Jhaj photo.

From heat warnings, to floods, fires, and landslides, BC has experienced several climate emergencies in the last few years.

How does climate change affect students, teachers, and the role schools have in communities? What are unions’ responsibilities in responding to climate emergencies? Earlier this year, the BCTF hosted a climate change think tank to open dialogue about these big questions.

The think tank brought together teachers from locals that have been recently affected by climate emergencies, members from the Environmental Justice Action Group on the Committee for Action on Social Justice, and colleagues from the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico, who have experienced their own share of climate emergencies in recent years. Here’s what we learned.

The role of a teacher shifts during and after a climate emergency

Schools have always had a broader role in communities than their primary function of being a place of learning. Whether it’s providing food, a safe place, or information and access to other community services, schools have an integral role in building up a community. This role is even more important after a climate emergency.

Teachers build relationships and connections with many families in the community. This community knowledge is essential in co-ordinating an emergency response. From different corners of the province, there are stories of teachers working with emergency response teams to make sure community members were safe and healthy. Teachers in Merritt were going door-to-door to check on students and families during school closures due to floods, while Princeton teachers volunteered to deliver clean water to families who did not have access.

Even when schools reopened and students were welcomed back, many students and teachers were grappling with losing their homes, being cut off from other communities, and trying to build new routines around uncertain futures.

“At that time, I was not an educator. I was a nurturer. Students needed a little bit of normalcy. They needed to know that the school building, and the adults in it, were a safe place,” said Leanne Atkinson from Princeton.

After a climate emergency, teachers, in a way, become responsible for helping students navigate their experiences while simultaneously adapting to a new normal that may look and feel much less stable than what they’re accustomed to. Teaching becomes less focused on curricular content, and more focused on connection, social-emotional support, and finding stability.

Teaching the curriculum isn’t possible when students have emotional trauma to process. Both students and staff come to school carrying this trauma after a climate emergency. However, the training and professional development needed to teach through trauma, while also trying to process one’s own trauma, is lacking.

School buildings and facilities are underprepared for dealing with climate emergencies

As we see more and more climate emergencies across the province, we also see the ways in which our school buildings are falling short in protecting students and staff.

In Princeton schools were fully operational long before potable water was available in the buildings. A year and a half later, students learned first-hand the impact of plastic waste as the school racked up water bottles because of a lack of safe drinking water from the taps.

In places like Kamloops, wildfire smoke can create hazardous levels of air pollution that pose a significant health risk, especially to vulnerable people. And though some schools were outfitted with air filters during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re learning that what constitutes the gold standard for filtration of viruses from air falls short when it comes to smoke filtration. If we are to create safe and healthy learning spaces, air quality needs to be a priority.

Heat waves have also posed a new challenge that school buildings are under-prepared to handle. As the frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves increases, the risk of disruption to education will only grow.

Much of the response so far has been reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to climate emergencies. So how do we prepare schools, students, and staff to deal with future climate emergencies?

“Maybe it’s time we start thinking about what a climate emergency drill looks like. We’ve all done fire drills, and we know that’s effective for keeping students and staff safe. How can we integrate learning about climate emergency responses?” said Greg Wagner from Kamloops.

Climate emergencies can create opportunities for neoliberal agendas to jeopardize and privatize quality public education, as seen in Puerto Rico

In recent years, when schools were closed after hurricanes and earthquakes in Puerto Rico, teachers fought to reopen schools as quickly as was safe to do so. In some cases, teachers were working without a physical building and running classes in outdoor community spaces. Often, school facilities, such as basketball courts, remain unusable even years after the climate emergency occurred. However, reopening schools, even without adequate facilities, is important in the fight against “disaster capitalism” in Puerto Rico.

There, teachers have watched several schools be permanently shut down after a climate emergency. These schools are labelled as being beyond repair; however, the building is often sold and reopened as a private school in the months and years that follow the climate emergency.

The unfortunate reality is that climate emergencies facilitate the privatization of education systems while also taking resources away from the public system. In Puerto Rico, each climate emergency results in migration off the island. This drop in enrolment, however small, combined with the damage to school buildings gives decision-makers a perfect excuse to justify the privatization of a school in a particular community. The teachers’ federation in Puerto Rico is fighting to limit the number of schools their ministry of education can privatize in any given year.

These infographics were created as live graphic recordings to capture and summarize the discussions that occurred at the think tank.

Collective agreements can proactively protect members in future climate emergencies

When severe flooding in Merritt and the Fraser Valley closed major roadways, many teachers found themselves stuck with unreasonable commutes to get to their schools. In some cases, teachers spent up to four hours each day getting to and from work.

Collective agreements are powerful tools to protect workers; unfortunately, most collective agreements do not currently have adequate language to protect teachers after a climate emergency or compel employers to make accommodations for those affected by climate emergencies. Keeping climate change at the forefront during bargaining can help secure workers’ rights and safety during and after future climate emergencies.

Colleagues from the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico shared an example of how collective agreements can be an invaluable tool in creating proactive climate emergency response systems. Members of the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico have access to leaves of absence if they have lost their home or experienced trauma because of a climate emergency.

Our collective agreements could also help safe-guard workers rights by establishing standards for clean air and safe temperatures in schools and providing trauma supports in the aftermath of a climate emergency.

The labour movement at large has the potential to play a key role in shaping proactive climate emergency response systems throughout our province. With upstream thinking that emphasizes collaborative supports for workers and students, we can create better support systems and be more prepared for the next climate emergency. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, schools and teachers are integral in community emergency responses.

“People need a place to heal after an emergency. That place is our schools. Schools are the centre of our community,” said Mercedes Martinez, President of the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico.

As the centre of the community, schools need to be equipped to deal with emergencies so the community can heal and rebuild around them.


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