After initially ordering all students to remain indoors during the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, Palm Beach County’s public school leaders relented Wednesday and said schools could let students watch the historic event in outdoor sessions with special protective glasses.
The reversal came hours after The Palm Beach Post reported that school district administrators had ordered principals Tuesday to keep all students indoors during the peak hours of the eclipse to prevent them from potential eye damage.
The initial ban had been met with dismay from some teachers and parents who hoped the rare eclipse could be an educational experience. Some parents threatened to remove their kids from school to watch the event at home. And some school leaders protested that they had already purchased the protective sunglasses so students could observe the eclipse directly.
Faced with objections, Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen told principals Wednesday afternoon that the school district would permit students to participate in “principal-approved” observation events “using appropriate eyewear.”
Any protective sunglasses have to be approved by American Astronomical Society, he said, and principals “must ensure every safety precaution is taken for eclipse-related lessons.”
“Looking directly at the sun, even when it is partially covered by the moon, can cause serious eye damage or blindness,” Christiansen wrote. “It is important that you do not look at a partial solar eclipse without proper eye protection.”
Aside from officially sanctioned eclipse-watching events, the county’s public schools will require students to stay indoors during the peak hours of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse. That means all activities between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m., including sports, recess, physical education, band practice and after-care programs.
The rule will not affect school dismissal times, but educators are being asked to be extra careful when releasing students because of the “increased dangers of distracted drivers and pedestrians.”
“Drivers should avoid the roads, if possible, during the eclipse event,” Christiansen wrote.
Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said that district leaders were initially unaware that some school had already purchased protective glasses and that the change was made to ensure that they could take advantage of the learning opportunity.
“We didn’t know that schools had purchased that,” he said, adding that the plans for dealing with the unique event are “evolving right here in front of us.”
“At the end of the day, we need to use common sense, not overreact but not take it lightly,” he said.
The directive to the school district’s more than 180 public schools comes as schools across the country struggle with how to handle the historic eclipse, which will be at its height around 3 p.m. It’s the first total solar eclipse in 99 years to cross the nation coast-to-coast.
Some school systems nationwide are opting to cancel classes for the day to avoid the risk of students watching the eclipse unsafely. Other schools are purchasing protective glasses and encouraging students to view the historic event.
Because the sun will be more than 80 percent blocked by the moon, it will be easier to look at, raising the prospect that children could damage their vision if allowed to stare at it without proper protection.
Several school districts in Georgia, where a portion of the state will experience totality, have delayed dismissal times to make sure students safely view the eclipse. Atlanta Public Schools purchased 50,000 glasses for students.
While South Florida will experience only about 80 percent of the sun covered during the eclipse, experts said it’s worth getting the glasses to see it.
“The fact that this one is going to be so deep is going to be very cool,” said Yan Fernandez, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Central Florida. “That just doesn’t happen very often.”
Some experts who missed previous chances to view eclipses say they have come to regret it.
Florida Atlantic University astronomy professor Eric Vandernoot was in the third grade during the 1979 total solar eclipse. He said his teachers were so fearful of the event that they not only kept students inside during it, they moved them into interior hallways.
Instead of making pinhole viewers to see the eclipse or watching it through safety glasses, Vandernoot listened to a lesson on how to properly brush his teeth.
“Don’t do that to kids, they will never forget missing it,” Vandernoot said. “In 1979 we didn’t have the Internet. Google didn’t exist, so getting teachers to understand how to do things safely was maybe a concern.”
But that’s not the case today.
“If you are a parent, go and talk to your school and persuade them to do something special,” said Ivona Cetinic, an eclipse researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s an awesome event.”
Staff writer Kimberly Miller contributed to this story.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ECLIPSE?
Post reporter Kimberly Miller has all the answers on her weatherplus blog.
How do I view the phenomenon? What will it look like in Florida? Can I take a photo of the eclipse with my smartphone? Weatherplus.blog.palmbeachpost.com