David Hecker: Here’s how we can improve our classrooms and our climate

March 18, 2022 8:48 am

Climate protest before the Democratic debate | Andrew Roth

Educators and schools play a critical role in preparing our kids for the future and giving them the skills they’ll need to thrive. But education doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and our students’ future will be shaped by more than what they learn from their textbooks. 

Right now, the climate crisis is one of the biggest threats to public health, and we cannot ignore the impact it has on our communities. To ensure a bright future for our students, we also need to do our part to promote sustainability and protect the health of our environment.

In Michigan and across the country, many students are learning in aging buildings plagued by issues that can negatively affect the health of both individual students and our environment. From poor ventilation to leaky roofs to lead-contaminated water, subpar and outdated school infrastructure is making classroom environments less healthy for students and staff. But together, we can change that and create efficient, sustainable school buildings where our kids can thrive.

Climate justice and justice for working people are inseparable, and working families will greatly benefit from safe, affordable, renewable energy. That’s why labor unions like AFT Michigan are some of the strongest advocates for a shift to sustainable energy and carbon-free schools. Working people, particularly those who live in low-income or majority-minority neighborhoods, are some of the people most affected by pollution and the climate crisis, so we understand as well as anyone the need for a new, bold approach.

Workers are already leading the way. In cities and states across the country, unions and community groups have united to campaign for carbon-free and healthy schools, calling for modernized, decarbonized school buildings in every neighborhood with safe, healthy and COVID-resistant classrooms for our kids. This national movement for carbon-free and healthy schools can help us stave off climate peril while advancing racial and economic justice, and AFT Michigan and other unions are committed to securing a better future for students, school communities, and working families in our state

Of course, making these much-needed repairs will require a lot of labor. That means that decarbonizing our school infrastructure is also an incredible opportunity to create good, clean, union jobs in our communities. These well-paying jobs will help move us into a brighter future and get our economy better than back to normal as we continue to recover from the COVID pandemic.

We’re running out of time to decarbonize before the effects of the climate crisis become irreversible, but we cannot let despair sink in. Instead, we must act swiftly and boldly to overhaul our energy infrastructure and save the fate of future generations — and school communities can be the epicenter for this change. Our state has received significant relief funding from the federal government as a result of the COVID pandemic, and we can put that money to good use upgrading our buildings and making education more sustainable.

Making these much-needed changes will benefit everyone involved: our kids, who can learn and thrive in safe school environments and have a bright future to look forward to; staff, who will have the resources they need to effectively teach our children; school districts, who will save money thanks to more efficient energy systems; and working people everywhere, who need and deserve good union jobs and clean air and water.

The situation is dire, but we have the power to fix it. So let’s get to work.

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker was the president of AFT Michigan. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.