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Afraid of the dark? Why Canadian schools are closing for the solar eclipse

As North America prepares for a once-in-a-lifetime solar event, school districts across eastern Canada are weighing potential learning opportunities against possible risks, with most coming down solidly on the side of safety. 

Many school boards are making arrangements to ensure students are not at school during the total solar eclipse on April 8, cancelling classes or opting for early dismissal. They cite concerns that kids might damage their eyes by looking directly at the sun, or that the mid-afternoon darkness will make their trek home dangerous.

The path of totality — an approximately 200-kilometre-wide swath where the moon fully blocks the light of the sun — stretches through cities and towns in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. While the full eclipse will only last from one to three minutes, the event is expected to last for more than two hours during mid or late afternoon. 

In Toronto, which falls just outside the path of totality and will only experience a partial eclipse that will peak at 3:19 p.m. ET, the city’s biggest school board rescheduled a professional development day for teachers from April 19 to April 8.

“As the eclipse will occur around the dismissal times of many schools, there were concerns that children would be outside and possibly looking directly at the sun, which without appropriate protection, can lead to serious problems such as partial or complete loss of eyesight,” reads a letter to parents, signed by Toronto District School Board director Colleen Russell-Rawlins.

Painless in the moment

The safety issues aren’t to be taken lightly, according to a Toronto ophthalmologist who specializes in retinal diseases.

When a person looks at the sun, it’s typically so bright that their eyes will reflexively close from irritation, said Panos Christakis. But during an eclipse, only a fraction of the light comes through, so your eyes can tolerate looking for a longer period, increasing the risk of damage.

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It would be painless at the moment, so a person would not realize until it was too late that they had permanently lost a significant amount of central vision, a condition called solar retinopathy.

That puts a heavy burden of responsibility on teachers in a classroom setting, he said.

“It just might be hard if a class is looking at this eclipse, having people monitoring to make sure that kids are not looking around the special glasses or are not using the right protection,” Christakis said. 

The sky appears black and a white ring is seen around the moon as it blocks out the sun during a total solar eclipse.
A photo of the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, shows the sun’s outer atmosphere — a white ring called the corona — peeking out behind the moon. (Philippe Moussette)

Eclipse-safe eye protection, such as the ISO 12312-2 glasses, are specifically developed and tested to prevent eye damage during an eclipse. But they’re not effective if they’re not being worn, he said.

“They’re thousands of times darker than regular sunglasses, so really, you can’t see anything except an extremely bright light,” he said.

“Kids may be underwhelmed by that experience and start peeking around them.”

Learning opportunity of a lifetime

Tracy Webb, an astrophysicist with the Trottier Space Institute at Montreal’s McGill University, worries the school closures are depriving kids of a valuable learning experience.

Montreal is in the path of totality, and most schools and daycares — including the Centre de services scolaire de Montréal, one of the city’s three major French language school boards in the city — will be closed on April 8. 

“It is their job to keep the kids safe during school hours and I appreciate that,” Webb said.

“But at the same time, it’s important to be reasonable and not blow it into something that it’s not.”

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Webb said the approximately minute-and-a-half of darkness in Montreal — which will not be pitch black, but rather similar to dawn or dusk — is “not going to cause chaos in the city.”

Webb plans to bring her kids to work with her that day to watch the eclipse. Ideally, she said, everyone would get the day off to view the rare spectacle together.

“My worry about closing schools is that only the kids whose parents can take time off work will be able to experience the eclipse now, whereas maybe school boards and the government could have organized something with the schools so that those kids had a chance also to see the eclipse,” she said.

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Montreal scientists Pierre Chastenay and Camille Turcotte penned an open letter in Le Journal de Montreal stating the Quebec government was fuelling hysteria and causing confusion by recommending closures. 

Discover the Universe, a program run by Canadian astronomers that offers astronomy training for teachers, encouraged schools to offer opportunities for viewings, writing on its website that enabling students to engage with the eclipse “is the safest and most productive course of action schools can take.” 

Proceeding with caution

In the United States, some schools are cancelling classes while others are organizing group viewings, even busing students into the path of totality. Teachers in Dallas were told at a teaching workshop that it would be “almost criminal” to keep students inside during the eclipse, according to the Associated Press.

In Canada, most major school boards are erring on the side of caution. 

While most Ontario boards are rescheduling a professional development day, Ottawa’s biggest school board didn’t have a spare day to move so it’s simply eliminating a teaching day.

Prince Edward Island students will be dismissed two hours early “out of an abundance of caution,” the provincial government said in a news release. Alberton, P.E.I., will have one of the longest viewings in Canada, lasting for three minutes and three seconds when it happens at 4:35 AT.

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Students in New Brunswick may be sent home early so they can “safely arrive at their after-school destination before the eclipse begins,”  said the province’s education department. 

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has not announced plans to dismiss early, though it will experience the eclipse later in the day, hitting Gander at 5:12 p.m. NT. The eclipse will just skim the northern tip of Nova Scotia, where it can be viewed in Meat Cove. 

A map of eastern Canada showing which areas should see what during a solar exclipse.
Map of the path of totality in Canada for the April 8 solar eclipse. (Canadian Space Agency)

Tips for safe viewing

Even if schools are opting out, Webb urges parents to seek out viewing events in their communities.

In Montreal, McGill University will host an eclipse fair where 20,000 pairs of protective glasses will be available for the public. 

If you have eclipse glasses, Christakis said you can test them by looking at a bright, uncovered light bulb. You should just be able to see a “very faint dot.” 

He emphasized that it’s only safe to remove the glasses during the brief period of totality, when the sun is completely eclipsed by the moon and only the sun’s corona is visible as a faint halo.

You will know this is happening when you no longer see anything through the glasses, he said. Once even a sliver of sun reappears, the glasses need to go back on. 

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience our kids probably should participate in, or consider participating in, but obviously in a safe manner — using the right glasses and supervised by an adult,” he said. 

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