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Why some schools are closing for the solar eclipse — but others are staying open

On Aug. 21, 2017, a spectacular total eclipse of the Sun will be visible, weather permitting, within a roughly 70-mile-wide swath (shown in yellow) of the continental U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina. Outside of this path, the rest of the country will have a deep partial solar eclipse, as noted by the lines showing the percentage of the Sun’s bright face that will be covered by the Moon at maximum eclipse. (By Michael Zeiler / Astronomical Society)

To close or not to close? That became the question for school districts across the country that are beginning the 2017-18 school year in early to mid-August but had to decide whether to let students stay home — or come to class — on the day of the Great American Eclipse.

Day will become night when the moon passes between the sun and Earth on Aug. 21, casting a shadow on our planet. If you are in what is called the path of totality, the moon will seem to be blotting out the sun for a few minutes with only a halo of burning gases visible — though the moon’s movement will take several hours. In the United States, those who are not in the path of totality will see a partial eclipse (as will people in Canada, Central America and in the northern part of South America).

Looking directly at the sun without proper protection can damage eye tissue, and that becomes more of a risk when people are interested in being outside specifically to look in the sky and watch the eclipse. Education officials whose districts start the new school year before the eclipse have had to decide whether it was wiser to stay open — or to close — to best protect children, and different districts came down on different sides.

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In Illinois, for example, which is about 100 miles from Carbondale, where the total eclipse will last the longest, students in Edwardsville District 7 will start the new school year on Tuesday, Aug. 15, but stay home the following Monday because the eclipse is expected to take place around the time school normally ends. Superintendent Lynda C. Andre issued a statement saying in part:

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. Since the District cannot safely dismiss all students at any time during the solar eclipse on August 21, the District 7 Board of Education approved an amendment to the 2017 – 18 school calendar to make August 21 a day of non-attendance and add the day to the end of the school year (May 18, 2018).

A number of school districts said the same thing: that the eclipse would be at its peak around the time of dismissal in the afternoon, and they didn’t want to take the risk of having children watch it without proper eye protection.

Jim Greenwald, superintendent of the Londdell R-XIV School District in Missouri, told News 4 that he was worried about teachers not being able to monitor every student to ensure they are wearing protective glasses. “We really felt we were not able to ensure the safety of all students,” he said.

In Knox County, Tenn., Superintendent Bob Thomas took some time to decide whether or not to close, and the district purchased protective eyeglasses for all students. But ultimately Aug. 21 was declared an “inclement weather day” and students will stay home. It issued a statement that said in part:

The timing of the eclipse will coincide with dismissal for most elementary schools and on the first full day of kindergarten. As a precautionary measure, Knox County Schools requested and was granted permission from the Commissioner of Education to close school on this day for inclement weather. After school activities (after 4 p.m.) – such as athletic practices and games and other special events – will proceed as originally scheduled.
Though school will not be in session the day of the eclipse, Knox County Schools is embracing this learning opportunity and science phenomenon with great excitement in the classroom. A Family Science Information packet will be sent to all families, and teachers will have solar eclipse lesson plans available to them for use in the week prior to the event. Students will also receive solar viewing glasses featuring designs created by two Knox County students.
Additionally, Knox County Schools has partnered with MUSE Knoxville to provide supplemental training for teachers.

But in Nashville, which will be on the path of totality, officials had first thought they should close the schools but then changed their minds. The district issued this statement:

We had originally planned not to have school on the day of the eclipse but were asked by the Mayor to reconsider that decision as she felt strongly that young students could encounter safety issues if they were left home without supervision on that day. The district had already purchased safety glasses for students to take home so they could safely view the eclipse from home. Since Tuesday’s vote, the administration has been working through logistics associated with the calendar change – including obtaining safety glasses for school personnel – and will communicate further details with families as we get closer to the start of school.

In Georgia, some school districts are extending the school day so that students can watch it under adult supervision, each of them with free protective glasses. Dalton Public Schools issued a statement saying that kids would stay in school for an extra 30 minutes “to make the most of a rare event” because “the timing of the eclipse will link up with school dismissal times.” It said in part:

Dalton Public Schools will be doing activities like making projectors, taking observations and scientific calculations, creating art projects and more.
“We’ve decided to extend the day so that we can provide authentic and in the moment learning experiences for our students,” said Chief Learning Officer Laura Orr. “We don’t want to miss the unique opportunity.”
Thanks to a generous donation from The Allan Jones Foundation (Check Into Cash, Buy Here Pay Here USA and U.S. Money Shops), the district has 9,000 pairs of NASA-approved, eclipse-viewing glasses to give to each student. The glasses are personalized with the date and a unique message so that students will have a special historical keepsake.

In South Carolina, Clemson University, in the path of totality, will welcome students for the fall semester on the same day as the eclipse and hold a welcome convocation but is also planning activities with scientists and other experts — and offering free protective eyewear—  for anyone interested in watching the eclipse. At 2:37 p.m. on Aug. 21, a total eclipse will be seen there — barring a layer of clouds — for, coincidentally, 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

This will be the first time since 1918 that a total solar eclipse will sweep across the whole width of the United States, with the path of totality passing first over Oregon and then moving onto 13 other states (see map above): Oregon, Idaho, a sliver of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, a sliver of Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The last time a total solar eclipse swept the whole width of the United States was in 1918.