UPDATE: In reversal, PBC schools will let kids watch Aug. 21 eclipse

UPDATE: Palm Beach County’s public schools have rescinded their blanket ban on letting students watching the Aug. 21 solar eclipse outdoors, hours after The Palm Beach Post reported that principals had been instructed to keep all kids inside.

In an email memo sent to school leaders Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said that schools would now be allowed to let students observe the eclipse directly in “principal-approved” outdoor sessions with protective sunglassses.

Principals have to approve the sessions prior to Aug. 21, Christiansen wrote. Other outdoor activities will still be canceled or moved indoors.

“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.”

Here’s the relevant excerpt of Christiansen’s new memo, which was sent to administrators at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday:

“In order to provide clarification to our previous memo regarding the upcoming solar eclipse (attached), we are providing the following information:

“Our School District and school principals are responsible to provide a safe environment for all students. Schools can participate in a principal-approved “structured eclipse observation activity” using appropriate eyewear.* Principals must approve these activities prior to August 21, and must ensure every safety precaution is taken for eclipse-related lessons. Principals should review eclipse plans with their principal supervisor.”

ORIGINAL STORY: Palm Beach County’s public schools will require all students to stay indoors during the peak hours of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse to protect their safety, according to an internal memo.

All county schools must move normal outside activities indoors from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., including sports, recess, physical education, band practice and after-care programs, Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen wrote Tuesday in an directive to principals, a copy of which was obtained by The Palm Beach Post.

Rather than watch the eclipse outdoors, the county’s public schools are being asked to instead let students watch it on screens “for safe indoor viewing,” Christiansen wrote.

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.

The directive also prohibits schools from purchasing viewing glasses, which can allow children and adults to observe the eclipse safely.

A school district spokeswoman declined to comment on the memo but said schools plan to provide information about the eclipse to parents this week. The first day of school is Monday.

The school district’s directive to the county’s more than 180 public schools comes as schools across the country are struggling 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 eye protection.

But the decree is likely to upset some students and teachers who saw the eclipse as a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the students to learn and be immersed in science, but instead we have to be inside streaming it online and hoping the infrastructure doesn’t crash,” said one Palm Beach County elementary school teacher familiar with the edict.

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 only experience about 80 percent of the sun covered during the eclipse, experts said it’s worth seeing.

“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 kept the students not only inside during it, but 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.”

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