'An educational experience': Area schools plan lessons, dismissals, viewing events around solar eclipse

Apr. 3—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The total solar eclipse Monday promises to be "an incredible cosmic alignment," according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Because of that, local teachers are planning special events for students leading up to and on that day.

Some school districts, such as Greater Johnstown, United, Shade-Central City and Berlin Brothersvalley, will dismiss students early to allow them to safely watch the moon pass between the Earth and sun with their families. In Pennsylvania, that will be between 2 and 4 p.m.

Others, including Ferndale Area, Windber Area and Blacklick Valley, are planning watch parties for their students, and nearly every district in Cambria and Somerset counties has scheduled lessons on the subject.

Most schools are allowing parents to pick up students after 1 p.m. for an excused educational absence. Special safe solar viewing glasses have been acquired by all districts for students.

"We want to make it an educational experience for them," Windber Area School District Director of Education Glenn Gaye said.

He said younger children will learn about how the eclipse works, while one teacher has tied the astronomical happening to state testing and others are building dioramas of the eclipse for students to study.

Some teachers at the Somerset County district plan to take their students outside to watch the eclipse with special viewing glasses.

That includes the pre-kindergarten class of Jennifer York.

"It only comes around every once in awhile and we have to take the opportunity to view it," York said.

She introduced the topic of the eclipse to her students Tuesday by using props to demonstrate how the cosmic phenomenon takes place.

The class covered what the celestial bodies are made of, how orbits work and what happens when the moon moves between the sun and Earth.

York expects students' excitement about the eclipse to grow as Monday approaches, and, to help with that, the class will create and decorate a paper plate mask with the embedded eclipse glasses for viewing the eclipse.

She said the entire district has stressed the need for safety.

NASA cautions that when watching the partial phases of the eclipse, which happens before and after totality, eclipse glasses must be used.

"Eclipse glasses are not regular sunglasses," NASA wrote in a safety article. "Regular sunglasses, no matter how dark, are not safe for viewing the sun.

Safe solar viewers are thousands of times darker and need to comply with the ISO 12312-2 international standard. NASA does not approve any particular brand of solar viewers."

It's also important not to look through binoculars, a telescope or camera lens while wearing the solar viewers or without a special-purpose solar filter because "the concentrated solar rays will cause serious eye injury."

The eclipse may be viewed without protection at the peak of the event when the sun is completely obscured, known as totality, which NASA reports will be obvious because no part of the sun will be viewable through the protective glasses and everything will get dark.

In Pennsylvania, the path of totality will travel across the Erie area between 3:16 and 3:20 p.m., according to a NASA timetable.

The rest of the state will be in roughly 75% of totality.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth and all three are perfectly aligned so the sun's face is blocked.

The most recent total solar eclipse in the United States took place in 2017 with the path of totality covering the middle and northwestern states and before that was in 1979.

Kathy Nalisnik, an elementary science teacher in the Shade-Central City School District, said her students are "very excited about the eclipse" and all teachers in the school have been provided lesson packets on the cosmic event.

"They have been asking a lot of questions," Nalisnik said.

"Students in various grades will be learning about the path of the eclipse, why an eclipse happens and how to safely view the eclipse. We are also going to make eclipse models and pinhole cameras, which are simple devices that allow students to view a projected image of an eclipse safely.

"We are trying to present the eclipse as a 'big deal' because this really is an incredible astronomical phenomenon."

She and other educators approached administrators about an early dismissal so students could enjoy the moon and sun alignment with their families and view it safely.

Nalisnik said students may be on the bus during the eclipse and viewing from a window may be hazardous, so she supported an early dismissal.

Berlin Brothersvalley School District Superintendent David Reeder shared a similar reason for letting students out early.

He said, "Due to the timing of the eclipse, students would be riding buses at regular dismissal time," so the "team decided it was prudent to get them home prior to the event."

United School District Superintendent Richard Lucas said safe travel was also his concern.

The timeframe of the eclipse aligns with that district's dismissal time.

"This is a tremendous learning event for our students," Nalisnik said. "Every year in class we learn about eclipses, but this year, students actually get to experience one. The next total solar eclipse in the U.S. will be over 20 years from now. Most of my students will be in their 30s when that happens.

"They will be viewing the next total solar eclipse with their sons and daughters."

For more information about the solar eclipse, visit www.science.nasa.gov/eclipses/future-eclipses/eclipse-2024.