Blog: The Educated Reporter

Is the Solar Eclipse Too Risky For Students?

When a total solar eclipse passes over the United States on Monday, the best viewing will be in a handful of states stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. But some school districts are planning to keep students indoors, citing concerns over the potential health risks of viewing the historic event for themselves.

Viewers in a dozen states will be able to see a total solar eclipse, the first in the contiguous U.S. since 1979 (in other parts of the country a partial solar eclipse will be seen). And it’s been 99 years since an eclipse yielded what’s known as a ”path of totality” — complete darkness — from coast to coast. 

In southern Illinois, where the eclipse is expected to be viewable from 11:52 a.m. to 2:47 p.m., the Edwardsville Board of Education voted to cancel classes entirely on Monday, along with after-school activities including band and athletics. Individuals who fail to follow safety guidelines for viewing the eclipse risk long-term and even permanent damage to their vision, wrote Superintendent Lynda Andre in a memo explaining the decision:

“Similar to other environmental hazards such as snow, ice, and dangerously low temperatures that cause the District to use emergency days, the solar eclipse presents a hazard to students if they cannot be kept indoors during the entire time of exposure of almost three hours.”

Some critics say education officials are going too far in trying to protect students, and in the process are denying them what some astronomical observers have described as a life-changing experience:

A viral Facebook posting spread unsubstantiated fears about the risk to children of observing the eclipse, especially if they’re tempted to “peek” around the sides of their protective glasses, wrote Greg Toppo of USA Today. Those kinds of arguments “are driving science teachers nuts,” Toppo wrote:

“Kids go to school every day — kids go out onto the playground every day,” said Dave Crowther, director of teacher education at the University of Nevada, Reno, and president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). “This day is no different from any other day in school.”

But as EdSource’s Carolyn Jones explained, many teachers are using the eclipse to help students see a connection between their classroom studies and a real-world event.

As day turns briefly to night in California, “the eclipse will help students appreciate the beauty of space — feel that joy and sense of wonder, ask questions and create their own journey of understanding the universe and their place in it,” John Panagos, a teacher at Burckhalter Elementary in Oakland, told EdSource. “If we can get them excited about the eclipse, then that can translate to so many other subjects,” he said.

In Arizona, where the eclipse won’t be viewed in its totality, districts are divided on whether to keep kids indoors during the peak viewing time. Anne Ryman and Richard Cano of the Arizona Republic report that some districts, including Scottsdale, will operate on a “rainy day” schedule and have students watch the eclipse on television instead.

“Scientists have issued repeated warnings that it’s unsafe to look at the sun during the solar eclipse without special eclipse glasses,” reads a note on the district’s website. “Even dark sunglasses don’t provide enough protection.”

The Arizona Republic also wisely provided tips for safe viewing of the eclipse, including how to check if solar glasses meet the required safety standards. And Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk has a roundup of eclipse-related curriculum tips for teachers as well.

In Palm Beach, Florida, the school district plans to let students outdoors, but only for three minutes of viewing time. And parents who want to view the eclipse with their children will be allowed to pick them up early from class and have it count as an excused absence, Andrew Marra wrote for the Palm Beach Post. Also in Florida, the school districts in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties will count Monday as an excused absence if parents keep kids home to watch the eclipse, according to the Tampa Bay Times. In Louisiana, some districts are leaving decisions about eclipse viewing up to their principals, while three Catholic schools in the New Orleans area will be closed for the day, according to NOLA.com’s Wilborn P. Nobles III. 

Amid the fears and debate, some schools in prime viewing areas like Missouri are embracing the teachable moment, writes Kristen Taketa of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, going so far as to order viewing glasses for all students and staff so that no one misses out — not even the bus drivers. That one-time investment could yield big payoffs for student learning, some experts say.

“Every generation has had something that has pushed kids toward science,” Karen Hargadine, a member of the St. Louis Eclipse Task Force who is overseeing education, told the Post-Dispatch. “This could be the impetus for a student going into those science and technology and STEM-related fields, which is just so critical in our world today.”

It doesn’t take fancy equipment to experience, and learn from, the eclipse, explained US News & World Report’s Lauren Camera. One Boston-area STEM educator said teachers can use a kitchen colander to track the eclipse’s shadows on the ground. 

And it’s not just K-12 educators seizing the solar opportunity. Postsecondary institutions across Nebraska — which will have key vantage points for the total eclipse — are eagerly awaiting their moment in the dark, writes Rick Ruggles of the Omaha World-Herald. 

Standing outside the school isn’t close enough for St. Louis teacher David Dempsey, who’s taking his fifth-graders on a two-hour bus ride for a better viewpoint from a state park. Of course, another feat of nature — albeit one that’s much more common — could still interfere, as St. Louis Public Radio’s Ryan Delaney and Camille Phillips reported: “It’s not going to rain,” Parkway’s elementary science director Jenn Abdel-Azim said with determination. “It won’t.”



Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

Read other Educated Reporter articles.