Here’s what kids need to know about the solar eclipse 

08 April 2024- On Monday, the moon will pass in front of the sun, creating a solar eclipse that will be able to be seen in various stages of totality in 13 states in the US, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. 

It’s a fun time in our history, but also one that comes with a lot of precautions, because looking directly at the blocked sun, even for a few seconds, could be damaging to the eyes. 

Naturally, a lot of concern turns to our children and making sure they are protected. 

Alicia Robertson, STEM Planetarium Resource Teacher with the William Brish Planetarium, part of the Washington County Public Schools, said, “Washington County Public School system is doing something that I think is very fantastic. They are actually providing eclipse glasses for every single student, staff member, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and all of the people who work in the central office so that they can go outside and observe the solar eclipse safely. In addition, because of the fact that solar eclipse glasses don’t do you any good if you don’t know what to do with them, we are providing a lesson using sources that we vetted in advance that talk to students about why we’re having an eclipse, why we won’t see a total eclipse, why we will only see a partial eclipse and why it’s important to use those solar eclipse classes to remain safe while you’re viewing the eclipse.”

It’s really important for parents and guardians to have conversations with children about how serious it is to not look at the blocked out sun. 

Robertson said, “We realize that is important, too, because as a teacher in the planetarium, I teach space to fifth grade students and every time they come in, we talk about the sun and one of the questions I always ask them is okay, be honest, who’s looked at the sun and almost every single student has done it and in fact, most of the teachers have, too. It’s just something that we have all done when we were a child and that is why we wanted to go ahead and do that lesson up front so that students would understand why it’s important, but in addition to doing that lesson with students we’re also sending notices home to parents and guardians about how students can be safe while they’re watching the eclipse and why they need to be wearing those solar eclipse glasses.”

What are the lessons the planetarium teaches students?  

Robertson said, “The thing that’s important about eclipses is that they don’t happen very often. Especially a total eclipse. Any given area can expect a total eclipse only about every 400 years. That doesn’t mean you only get them every 400 years. It’s about every 400, so we’ve been lucky enough that we had a total eclipse that goes through the United States in 2017. Then we’ll get another total eclipse coming through the United States right now. The reason that they’re so rare is because in order to have a total eclipse, not only does the moon have to be lined up directly in between the earth and the sun, which is difficult to achieve because the moon’s orbit is tilted at a five degree angle to the plane of our orbit around the sun. It’s also sometimes a little bit closer to and sometimes it’s a little bit farther from the sun, so it’s really hard to get that lineup so that you get a total eclipse.”

That lineup will happen on Monday. 

Robertson said, “You have to be standing directly in the moon’s shadow in order to see a total eclipse. That’s called the umbra of the shadow. I think of it as being under an umbrella here, completely in the shade. We, because of the fact that umbra is very small, are only going to be in what’s called the penumbra. I think of that as the partial umbrella. You’re only partly in the shadow of the moon and as a result, we will only have a partial solar eclipse. Luckily for us though, we’re close enough to the umbra, to that total eclipse line, that we are going to be seeing between 91 and 92 percent of the sun covered by the moon. That is actually a pretty large percent. So when we go to look at the eclipse, we will see just a little sliver of the sun peeking around the moon.”

Is this a rock concert moment for Robertson? 

She laughed, “I would say maybe this is like a rock star from the 25th row because in 2017 I actually traveled to Tennessee and was in the path of totality for that eclipse and I have to tell you, seeing something like that and listening to everything everybody always said about a total eclipse, that it gets darker, which of course it does, but it also gets colder and the birds will stop chirping and the crickets come out. I teach earth and space science. I thought that was a bunch of baloney. You know what? It is one hundred percent true. I didn’t think it would get as cool as it actually did. It was definitely cooler. Now we’re not going to of course be seeing quite all of those effects, but it is going to be really interesting to see exactly what happens with 91 to 92% of the moon covered. How many of those effects do we see here? Because what a fantastic science moment for our kids. They don’t get to be in the path of totality, but we’re pretty close.”

Tourism will be a big deal for this eclipse, and it’s anticipated that traffic will definitely be affected. 

Robertson said, “I am also the secretary for the Tri-State Astronomers which is an amateur astronomer group that meets at the William Brish Planetarium on the third Wednesday of every month at seven o’clock. Most of our members are actually following the eclipse path and going to the path of totality and I have to be honest with you. If I was not a teacher and did not think that being with our students in Washington County was more important, I would have gone and followed that eclipse, too, but given the choice, total eclipse, I’ve seen it once. Staying in Washington County, helping students understand and get outside to view that eclipse, I’d rather stay and work with students.”

While the planetarium is on hiatus right now, what normally happens there? 

Robertson said, “The planetarium, because we serve Washington County Public School students, I right now during the school year see every single one of our first grade, fourth grade and fifth grade students, because those are the curricula that have science standards that meet the resources that we have at the planetarium. I also saw some of our high school students. Those students are still actually coming to the planetarium because the technical issue that we’re having is that one of our projectors has died. As a result, we can see a movie on the front part of the dome, but the back part is completely dark. Now for the students that we have and the lesson that I’m teaching right now, the information that they need from the program that they’re watching and the lessons we do with that program is all still visible to them on the front of the dome, but I certainly don’t want any members of the paying public or paying public groups to come in and only get a half of a show because that’s not fun. Right now because we don’t have the back part of the dome, night sky tours are just a little more difficult to do.”

Washington County Public Schools will purchase new projectors, so the planetarium will be open again in the fall for the public. 

Robertson said, “So we will be back open again in the fall for our public programs and those happen on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. We do a 5:30 program for our younger audience members, a 7 o’clock program for our older audience members. Each program is kind of the same from the standpoint that we do a night sky tour so that we can see what’s in the sky and figure out how to identify constellations and stars in the sky right at the moment. Then we watch one of our wonderful planetarium movies, whether that’s on the constellation Orion or maybe it’ll be a show on black holes.”

The Washington County Public Schools will dismiss two and a half hours early on Monday. 

Robertson said, “So that we are sure that the students are in a place where they can observe safely, hopefully with parents and they’re not missing it by having to be sitting on a bus on their way home, because the eclipse is going to be at maximum at about 3:20 and a lot of our students, especially our secondary students at that point would be sitting on a bus, so they would have to miss the whole thing.”

Some students have already received the glasses, but if they haven’t, they will be passed out on Monday. 

Robertson said, “Students, staff, no one from Washington County Public Schools has to do anything to get those glasses. We’ve distributed them to all of the schools in the county and the administration there will make sure that they’re passed out to everyone. The glasses will be theirs to keep.”

There will be other eclipses in the next few years, but the percentages won’t be as high as what we’ll see on Monday. 

Robertson suggested, “They could even keep those glasses and use them for those eclipses if they would like. They would simply need to make sure that they store them someplace where they won’t get wrinkles, the lenses won’t get scratched, because if that happens, you have to throw them out. You don’t want to risk damaging your eyes by looking at the sun with solar eclipse glasses that have some sort of damage to them.”

Can you gauge whether glasses are certified? 

Robertson said, “I can tell you that they’re all going to say that they’re ISO certified and they are not going to say anywhere on them that they are certified by NASA. NASA does not certify solar eclipse glasses. The pair that I have right now actually came from the jet propulsion laboratory and it has NASA’s website on the back, but you’re not going to see anything that says certified by NASA on it. It does say it conforms to ISO 12312-2 on it, so that you know they’re appropriate for looking at the eclipse. So it is a little tricky. I would suggest if anybody is not sure that they get online. Go to NASA, look up eclipse eye safety because there should be information on there for how to tell whether or not yours are real.” 

Apparently one third of Americans are unaware that looking at a solar eclipse without eye protections can do damage to the eyes. 

Robertson said, “The biggest problem with an eclipse is that when the sun is covered by the moon, whether it’s the total eclipse or the partial as we’re going to get, the pain receptors you have in your eye to say, don’t look and make you squint, aren’t really going to be working because most of the sun is going to be covered by the moon. So at that point, people look at the sun and they go well, it doesn’t really hurt. Well, yeah, it doesn’t really hurt, but there’s still ultraviolet energy coming from the sun and that’s the biggest problem. I think another problem we have with eclipses and wanting to look at them is that if you are in the path of totality, you can actually take your eclipse glasses off only when the sun is totally covered by the moon. As soon as it begins uncovering again, you have to put your classes back on. We are never going to be in the path of totality, so even at our maximum with 91 to 92% of the sun covered by the moon, you still have to leave your solar eclipse glasses on all the time. You cannot take them off.”