Connecticut schools will soon be required to teach climate change as a part of the science curriculum, a move state legislators and advocates say will mean changes at a small percentage of schools that aren’t yet bringing the subject to the classroom.
Close to 90% of schools already teach about climate change, but it will be required by state law beginning in July 2023, said Rep. Bobby Sanchez, co-chairman of the Education Committee.
“We heard from teachers and from students that were concerned that climate change wasn’t being taught,” said Sanchez, D-New Britain.
The requirement, which was included in the budget implementer bill, is the culmination of a years-long effort to ensure Connecticut students learn about climate change. There’s no cost anticipated with the measure, unless districts need to purchase additional materials for the lessons, according to a legislative fiscal note.
The mandate was initially included in a House bill that passed through the Education and Appropriations committees and didn’t make it to the House floor. But Sanchez said there was concern among lawmakers that there wouldn’t be enough time in a short session for the bill to make it through both chambers.
The bill passed the Education Committee 31-8 and had bipartisan support, Sanchez added.
The Next Generation Science Standards, a national standard adopted by Connecticut, includes teaching on climate change. Twenty states and Washington, D.C., use Next Generation Science Standards, according to the group’s website.
Through the curriculum, students gradually build an understanding of the environment they live in and eventually discuss climate change and solutions, according to officials and curriculum summaries.
In Connecticut, students in grades 5, 8 and 11 are tested on climate change, said Eric Scoville, the Department of Education spokesman.
“Last legislative session, the department was tasked with developing K-8 model curriculum for which climate change is included,” Scoville said in an email.
Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, said many of those advocating for the legislation were students whose districts didn’t require lessons on climate change.
Several students testified at a public hearing on the bill, including Sena Wazer of Mansfield.
At the time, Wazer was the director of Sunrise Movement Connecticut, a youth-led advocacy group that focuses on climate change. She’d worked on the issue for years. Although she was homeschooled, she said she often heard from friends that climate change wasn’t taught in school.
“That was kind of upsetting, because we are the generation that’s going to have to deal the most with the effects of climate change,” Wazer said. Much of her advocacy work consisted of organizing students.
Palm said her legislative efforts to teach Connecticut students about climate change began in 2018.
“I thought it was a no-brainer, to be honest, because why wouldn’t you teach about climate change? Palm said.
“Climate science is often one of the first things, along with arts, to go when budgets are tight,” she added. “A lot of poorer communities weren’t being taught this, and that’s really a travesty, because people of color and people in cities are more affected by climate change … For me, it was a matter of environmental justice.”
The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents opposed the original bill, saying the group was opposed to unfunded mandates.
“Generally, on principle, CAPSS is opposed to unfunded mandates on municipalities,” read public testimony from Frances Rabinowitz, the association’s executive director. “This bill would mandate that climate change be taught as part of the school curricula; currently, this is a permissible topic for school districts. Many, if not most of them, have already incorporated it into their curricula.”
Matthew Conway, Jr, superintendent of Derby Public Schools, also submitted testimony against the bill, saying climate change is taught in fifth and ninth grades and in environmental science.
“We continue to ask the General Assembly to work with us prior to mandating additional curriculum, as each time we add something we are not subtracting anything and we are not adding to the time in a day,” Conway’s public testimony read.
Recommendations from the state build the foundation for learning about climate change as early as kindergarten, when children learn about air and water, said Susan Quincy, an environmental education outreach specialist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
That builds up to high school, where students start to synthesize solutions in the classroom, Quincy said.
Quincy connects educators and students with resources that help them learn about the environment and climate change, often in ways that encourage them to get outdoors, she said.
“They can go out to locations and see where actions are being done — what is being put in place and how does it work within the natural systems,” she said. “They can start to see what’s in their actual backyard.”
Over the past couple of years, Quincy said she’s seen heightened interest in DEEP’s educational resources. She’s hopeful that the interest as well as more teaching on climate will encourage students to seek out careers in the field.
“It’s not just working in a lab anymore,” Quincy said. “There’s a lot of new careers that weren’t even around when we were in grade school.”
For environmental advocacy group Save the Sound, the new law is a positive, said Alex Rodriguez, a climate advocate with the group.
“If there are school districts out there that are not rising to the challenge and equipping the students about the science of what is happening to their futures, we saw that as a big disservice to the kids,” Rodriguez said.