School & District Management

The Eclipse Is Great for Learning. But It’s Tough on School Logistics

Safety concerns have led some districts to cancel school April 8
By Evie Blad — March 27, 2024 5 min read
A woman and stands outside with her arm on the back of a boy as they look up at the sky while wearing special paper glasses made for viewing a solar eclipse.
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A total solar eclipse will cross a large swath of the country on April 8, sparking tough management choices for leaders of the school districts in its path.

The rare astronomical event will provide an engaging science activity for students. But in many districts, concerns about traffic, crowds, and safety have eclipsed the potential upsides of the collective learning event, sparking precautionary school closures and early student releases.

“I’m a former science teacher, so this is right up my alley,” said Paul Norton, superintendent of the Lake Travis district in Austin, Texas, which will close that day. “We want to make sure our kids are aware of why this is a generational opportunity, but we also don’t want our buses to be stuck on the road [returning students home] until 7 o’clock at night.”

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In an event dubbed “the Great North American Solar Eclipse,” the moon will pass between the sun and the Earth, blocking out daylight for people in a 115-mile-wide path of totality that will stretch from Texas to Maine, starting at about 1:40 Central Time, NASA projects.

The total solar eclipse—the last that will be visible in the contiguous United States until 2044—will give viewers the rare opportunity to see the sun’s outer atmosphere, known as a corona, which is usually obscured by the star’s bright light. The temperature will drop in the eclipse’s path, nocturnal animals may stir, and many viewers will see a 360-degree sunset effect.

It will all be over in less than four minutes, scientists project, but educators recognize the eclipse could fuel weeks of classroom discussions and potentially spark a long-term interest in science for students who see it.

Lake Travis district leaders started preparing for the eclipse last summer, Norton said. Ultimately, a recommendation from the county’s emergency management department led leaders to close schools that day.

Communities across the path of totality expect an influx of tourists and accompanying traffic that could make it difficult for students to walk or ride home in a safe, timely manner, superintendents said. Lake Travis is surrounded by wineries and public lands that will host large events for the eclipse, which will bring out-of-towners—many in RVs—to the region.

Educators plan to teach lessons on the eclipse in advance so that students are prepared to view it at home, Norton said.

Like Lake Travis, hundreds of school systems across the country plan to close that day, some in anticipation of high numbers of absences from students who plan to take a day off to view the eclipse with their families. Some have opted for early dismissals or e-learning days with planned breaks for students to step outside. Further north, the eclipse is expected to hit right around school dismissal times, creating driving challenges for new teen drivers.

Educators are also concerned about monitoring young students during the darkness and ensuring they all wear special disposable glasses that make it safe to view the eclipse. Even just a few moments observing without proper protective eyewear can permanently damage the eye’s retina, scientists and doctors warn.

“This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and we are fortunate to be in the middle of the action,” said a notice from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which plans to close April 8.

The district will provide donated glasses to each of its students for home viewing, and its website links to information about watch parties hosted by the city’s library and several museums.

Eclipse provides science learning opportunities

In Arkansas, where the eclipse will cross the state in a diagonal path, students will have a special opportunity to learn collaboratively with their peers in other districts, even if their schools are closed, state education Secretary Jacob Oliva said.

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A billboard heralding the upcoming total solar eclipse that Erie will experience is shown in Erie, Pa., on March 22, 2024.
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Sixty schools in 45 counties have signed up for a special data collection project in cooperation with the state’s K-12 computer science initiative, through which students and teachers will use special handheld sensors to collect data about shifts in light and temperature levels as the moon passes in front of the sun.

Researchers at the University of Central Arkansas, who trained teachers to use the devices through regional education service cooperatives in recent months, will then combine the data. Following the event, students across the state can then use the results for data-analysis projects in science and computer science classes.

Eclipse FAQs for Educators

Is it safe for students to view the eclipse?

Except for a brief moment of total sun coverage, it is not safe to view the eclipse with the naked eye, NASA scientists caution. But students can safely view it through special eclipse glasses or by projecting the sun’s outline onto the ground through simple homemade devices. Read more here.

Where will the eclipse be visible? What if my school is not in the path of totality?

The total solar eclipse will be fully visible in a swath of the country stretching from Texas to Maine. People outside of the path of totality may see a partial eclipse. Learn more about the eclipse’s path here.

“We need to embrace this as a full educational experience,” Oliva said. “Any time we can support teachers and leaders to bring relevance to the classroom, it’s a real win for everybody.”

More than Arkansas 130 school districts and charter schools have announced plans to close that day. In anticipation, the state has provided resources for students as young as prekindergarten to learn about the solar system, make art projects inspired by the eclipse, and craft devices like cardboard pinhole viewers that project the sun’s outline on the ground for safe viewing.

At the Arkansas School for the Blind, students will use special handheld LightSound devices created by researchers at Harvard University that project a sound that changes in pitch as an internal sensor detects less light.

“It is really a positive thing to hear so much excitement around science,” Oliva said.

Staying open, staying safe

Some districts have opted to stay open the day of the eclipse, preparing educators in advance to help their students safely view it.

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In Ann Arbor, Mich., where the eclipse will occur at about 3:13 p.m., district leaders used donations from businesses to buy 20,000 pairs of eclipse viewing glasses—enough for all 17,000 students plus teachers, administrators, and bus drivers who want to take in the event, said Tony Stamm, the district’s elementary math and science curriculum coordinator.

“We won’t see this event again here until 2099,” Stamm said. “To actually be able to step outside and witness something like this during the day together, that’s really rare. I don’t think there’s anything comparable that really accounts to the magnitude of the event, as well as the accessibility.”

The district has its own planetarium, a rare facility for K-12 schools, but teachers don’t often have the opportunity to explain the movement of planets and stars in such a real-world fashion, Stamm said. The district created lesson plans for elementary school teachers, including special materials for those in grades that don’t typically include units on space, he said. Administrators also drafted special announcements for principals to read over school intercoms, including safety instructions and advice for viewing.

At Ann Arbor’s middle schools, the eclipse is expected to darken the sky right at dismissal time. Rather than cancel classes, educators have planned a community event, inviting families to picnic outside with their students and learn about science together.

“We are trying to cover it from all areas because we know this is a unique opportunity that won’t happen again in many of our lifetimes,” Stamm said.

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