One of the first science lessons of the year for thousands of students in Illinois and Missouri won’t happen in the classroom, but high above it.
Teachers are using Monday’s solar eclipse as an opportunity to inspire a new generation of stargazers, stockpiling special viewing glasses and planning activities and eclipse-specific lessons.
Of course, there’s the other side of the moon: Dozens of schools in the St. Louis area are closing, mostly for safety reasons.
“What an absolutely, incredible way to start off the school year, by having this real world, once in a lifetime experience,” Parkway School District science curriculum coordinator Stephanie Valli said.
An opportunity, sure, but also a challenge for those that’ll stay open. Teachers must safely shepherd hundreds or thousands of students out of the buildings and make sure they keep their glasses on.
But it’ll be worth it, former school administrator Karen Hargadine promised. She’s a volunteer with the St. Louis Eclipse Task Force, a group that’s been getting people excited — and getting them ready — for the eclipse.
“Maybe this will be a great, great activity and experience for kids that may decide they want to be an astrophysicist, or an astronaut,” she said.
Teachers are designing age-appropriate activities for their students, and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put together possible lessons.
“There’s so many things you can do with light and shadows in the sun and moon in general. If you’re in an area with cement, you could make yourself into a human sundial,” said Erin Tyree, program manager of the Challenger Learning Center in Ferguson.
Other ideas include measuring temperature fluctuations or a drop in energy collected by a school’s solar panels.
“Some of our buildings are really making a school-wide event out of it and doing lots of different scientific activities and experiments,” Rockwood schools’ curriculum director Shelley Willott said, “while others are just planning on just taking the students out during the eclipse to see it.”
The eclipse task force gave 154,000 pairs of eclipse glasses to 374 schools, a tally that doesn’t include schools that purchased them on their own.
Not being in the path of the totality (i.e. where the moon will fully cover the sun) isn’t stopping David Dempsy from making sure his students get the full show. He’ll pile 196 Highland, Illinois, fifth-graders onto charter buses for a two-hour drive south to a state park.
“I can't wait to see their eyes open wide and jaws drop as they experience totality,” he said.
And if the sun doesn’t shine? Students and teachers will have a different look on their faces.
“It’s not going to rain,” Parkway’s elementary science director Jenn Abdel-Azim said with determination. “It won’t.”
If it does, teachers have a backup plan. They’ll likely watch a NASA live stream of the eclipse from some place where it’s clear.
More like a snow day
A total solar eclipse comes around less often than a blizzard or a heat wave, but some area districts are erring on the side of caution, closing schools for an eclipse day.
That’s especially true for at least a dozen districts in Franklin and Jefferson counties near the center of the path of totality, which is expected to attract a lot of visitors and a crush of traffic to rural towns.
Fox School District Superintendent Jim Wipke said he wanted to have school, because the eclipse is a great learning opportunity.
But, he said:“If we were to have an emergency at one of our schools, I had to feel comfortable that first responders would be able to get to that school and get back in an adequate amount of time, and after talking to local law enforcement I just didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable in that.”
Wipke said students will take home viewing glasses.
Those glasses are key when it comes to safely view the eclipse. And safety is the main concern for the Edwardsville School District in Illinois.
The three-hour eclipse doesn’t end until a little before 3 p.m., when students are on their way home, and administrators are worried the kids will hurt their eyes.
“About two-thirds of our children board buses, and we’re responsible for them in that time as well as — until they actually walk into their homes at the end of the day. And that’s a huge responsibility that we take very seriously,” Superintendent Lynda Andre said.
Saint Louis University High School is also outside the path of totality. But Principal Ian Gibbons said “the majority, strong majority of our students, live in totality,” so he closed the school.
At a back-to-school event Wednesday, teenage boys handed out glow-in-the dark T-shirts and picked up viewing glasses. Sophomore P.J. Butler plans to see the eclipse from his home in south St. Louis County:
“We’re about to get like a minute-and-a-half of totality, and I’m having some family over to view it,” Butler said.
SLU High also is connecting students who don’t have a good spot to see the big event with classmates who have prime views.