climate change

[OPINION] How about setting up a heat health warning system in PH schools?

John Leo C. Algo

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[OPINION] How about setting up a heat health warning system in PH schools?

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The variables for the warning levels may include problems like heat exhaustion and heatstroke, and effects on learning of students and the productivity of teachers

When I was growing up, many of my friends could not wait for summer to arrive. It is a time for vacation, to take a break from homework and exams, and to go to the beach or the nearby amusement park.

These days, it seems like summer has become a year-long experience. And many people are not looking forward to the weather that comes with it.

A recent survey showed that nearly 9 out of 10 teachers, with their students, suffer from heat stress during their classes. The unbearable summer heat has been cited as the reason for over 1,000 schools opting for remote learning during 2023’s summer months. It is also a significant factor for the school calendar being transitioned back to the previous one that started in June.

Many are attributing this to the climate crisis, a clear example of how this issue directly affects more people at a personal, day-to-day level. The call for strengthened adaptation of the Philippine educational sector is now growing louder with each passing year.

While no one will claim the climate-proofing would be an easy process, the proposed solutions are also not as straightforward as they seem.

Heat index signal?

The current practice in the Philippines is for the administrations of schools to use their discretion about canceling classes due to extremely hot weather, per the directive of the Department of Education (DepEd). However, with temperatures expected to become higher given the lack of collective action by big polluters worldwide, the country needs to set up its own heat health warning system (HHWS).

Such a system is currently being used mostly in countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Australia. They usually center their assessments using two specific variables: the heat index, which is calculated for shady areas, and the wet-bulb globe temperature, which applies to areas in direct sunlight.

Within Southeast Asia, look no further than Singapore as an example of having a HHWS. It provides a standardized assessment of the level of heat stress using the wet-bulb globe temperature as its main basis (that is, low heat stress if under 31°C, high heat stress if at 33°C or higher). Each level is accompanied by advisories regarding attire, activities, and other actions citizens can take to avoid potential health risks.

The Philippines may take lessons from these examples, but establishing our own HHWS must be tailored to our national and local circumstances, through an evidence-based and inclusive approach. While there is already a heat index classification being used by PAGASA, a system with more applicable warning levels is now necessary as a preventive measure.

It is vital for the variables that will determine the warning levels to have a clear link with health impacts and other risks under consideration. In the case of schools, these may include heat-related health problems like heat exhaustion and heatstroke, and effects on learning of students and the productivity of teachers.

Setting up a nationwide HHWS must also ensure efficient and clear coordination mechanisms between different agencies; in our case, this would involve DepEd, the Department of Health, PAGASA, and the concerned local government unit, among others. Proper communication and educational strategies would also be crucial to inform communities, a lesson that we should have learned from our experiences in dealing with tropical cyclones for the past two decades.

Update the plans?

A HHWS is critical as both a climate and health response for the Philippine educational sector moving forward. Yet it is only one key piece of the entire puzzle that is climate-proofing our schools, a challenging puzzle to solve.

There has not been a significant focus on adaptation projects for infrastructure of schools, universities, and other learning institutions in the country. While initiatives on integrating climate change into curricula and capacity-building on preparations for emergencies are as important and have been implemented in recent years, it is not as often that we have seen the education sector be a focal point for the government’s call for climate-related investments or funding from other nations and international banks.

DepEd has issued a few orders in recent years addressing the resilience of schools against the climate crisis, including one in 2023. This order commands the department’s different bureaus to conduct disaster risk and vulnerability assessments of schools, learners, teachers, and other staff. A Multi-Year School Infrastructure Investment Program and Emergency Preparedness and Response plans for schools would also be developed.

While the President’s recent statement of climate-ready schools as one of his priorities is a welcomed sign, adopting a blended approach to learning as a response to extreme weather requires careful consideration beyond where students spend their school days.

The technological gap remains a significant inequality issue that would hinder the learning by millions of young Filipinos. A study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies reveal that only 14% of students from the poorest households can access a computer or tablet, while 16% can readily use the internet. The disparity in access to the internet between students in rural areas (27%) and urban areas (47%) is also an indicator of the challenges that would come with a blended approach.

Moving forward, the government has to more prominently integrate the education sector in its adaptation strategies. They have to ensure that all aspects of the issue, from financing to monitoring, are consistent with the country’s climate and development goals without compromising either the attainment of educational targets or the health of stakeholders.

Making the Philippine education sector climate-resilient requires a holistic approach where the safety of students and school personnel is prioritized, while ensuring that learning improves. Never has the phrase “invest in our future” been more appropriate. –

John Leo is the national coordinator of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the deputy executive director for programs and campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines. He is also a member of the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific.

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