"I'm glad I get to skip school to experience the solar eclipse"

High school senior Andrew Carter and a few of his pals will relax in the pool to watch the upcoming eclipse.
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High school senior Andrew Carter and a few of his pals will relax in the pool to watch the upcoming eclipse.
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‘Call it a snow day’: Schools, businesses shut for Royals parade, why not for eclipse?

By Eric Adler, Mark Davis and Diane Stafford

The Kansas City Star

August 13, 2017 07:00 AM

As a parent, Matt Dunn of Overland Park doesn’t care one iota that his two kids are supposed to be in school on Aug. 21 — the first time in more than 200 years that the path of a total solar eclipse has crossed Kansas City.

He’s yanking them. There will be no school that day for 11-year-old Lexi and 6-year-old Jayvan.

And, if Dunn were in charge, he’d have it be a no-school “eclipse day” for everyone — with his reasons as crystal clear as sky watchers are hoping the weather will be on that Monday when the heavens turn black just after 1 p.m.

First, it’s historic, a phenomenon that has not come this close to Kansas City since 1806, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were tramping back from the Pacific Northwest.

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Second, major school districts in the area, including Olathe, Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission, Kansas City, Kansas City, Kan., and Independence, shut down in November 2015 for the parade to honor the world champion Kansas City Royals.

“I don’t understand,” Dunn said. “You close Blue Valley for the Royals parade, but you don’t want to close Blue Valley schools for another once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Third: Yes, Dunn understands. It’s not easy to just close schools, sending everything from parents’ workdays, daycare plans and bus schedules into flux. He understands that many school districts plan to pass out solar glasses and gather students outside to make the eclipse a special lesson in science and history, the material perhaps for poetry.

That makes perfect sense for districts such as Park Hill and Liberty, Independence and North Kansas City, that are inside the eclipse’s path of totality — meaning the 70-mile band where the moon will be seen to totally cover the surface of the sun.

But Dunn and others say it doesn’t make sense for schools districts such as Olathe, Lee’s Summit, Raytown, Shawnee Mission and his own Blue Valley that maps show are outside the path of totality.

Instead of those districts’ students viewing a historic total eclipse, they will instead see — if weather permits — a 99 percent partial eclipse. Interesting, but also more common and, experts argue, far inferior to the total-eclipse experience.

“A partial eclipse is nothing compared to a total eclipse. You miss out on everything,” Jackie Beucher, the vice president of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, told The Star recently.

Dunn said, “What is frustrating for me is that I keep seeing these statements coming out, ‘We have events planned for your school for the total eclipse.’ But it’s not a total eclipse (for some schools). I wish they would stop saying that. It’s not a total eclipse.”

One student in the Blue Valley district has posted a petition on change.org to press the district to cancel classes.

Knowing what to do is not necessarily an easy call.

Just as the southern edge of the eclipse’s path of totality splits the Kansas City map (some areas are inside the path, others outside it), so too are sentiments on how parents, schools and business ought to react.

In Kansas City, Carolyn Campbell-Schwartz, owner of Ultrapom Event Rental, a small business in the Crossroads with six full-time and 10 part-time employees, is shutting down for the entire day. Much of the full-time staff and a few part-timers are being taken to Weston, into the path of the totality, for a special brunch.

“Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why not?” Campbell-Schwartz said.

J.E. Dunn Construction, with its corporate offices at 10th and Locust streets, is not shutting down. But just after lunch and before the eclipse slides into totality, its 400 employees will receive solar glasses to view the eclipse from atop the company’s parking deck.

“I want to see stars at 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” said company spokeswoman Emily Fors. The company’s office in Nashville, also in the path, is having a rooftop watch party.

In St. Louis, which like Kansas City is split by the path, the agricultural biotech giant Monsanto announced it was closing for the day. Again, that phrase — “potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” — popped up in Monsanto’s press release. (The last time the path of a total solar eclipse came so close to what is present-day St. Louis was the year 1442, 50 years before Christopher Columbus stepped foot in the New World.)

It would be nearly impossible for businesses that operate in shifts or 24 hours a day, like hospitals, casinos or even assembly line manufacturers, to empty out, even if for a single hour.

Most of the 3,000 hourly autoworkers at Ford’s Claycomo Assembly Plant will be stuck inside. No eclipse experience for them.

“They would have to shut the entire facility down,” said Jason Starr, president of United Auto Workers Local 249, which represents the workers. About 100 employees, he said, will be in position to catch the eclipse. Their work, including inspections and tests, is done outside.

Proximity to ecliptic path is a crucial factor in decisions.

With his office outside the path of totality in Merriam, Mike Coons isn’t taking off work, but figures if he takes a late enough lunch, he might be able to drive home to midtown Kansas City, hop on his bike and peddle toward downtown to catch a few second of full eclipse on the edge of the path. (The farther one is from the center of the path, the less time the total eclipse lasts.)

“People just say it is amazing,” Coons said of a total eclipse. “Really, the only equivalent I have is from the early ’90s. There was an annular eclipse when I lived in Lawrence. I can still picture it in my mind.”

(In an annular eclipse, the moon blocks just the center of the sun, leaving its outer rim visible as a ring of fire.)

North of Kansas City, near St. Joseph, which is at the center line of the path, schools will be out for the day. The same goes for nearby Atchison, Kan., which is expecting such a crush of people that schools were canceled primarily for reasons of safety and logistics.

“We had originally planned on having school,” Superintendent Susan Meyers said. The school had obtained solar glasses for kids, faculty and staff.

But administrators worried about traffic. If it was bad, Meyers said, how would the district get kids home on time after school? What if a child was injured at school and emergency vehicles were delayed?

“Third reason,” Meyers said. “So many businesses and offices and even factories are closing that day, we were concerned that we would not have as many kids left in school as we anticipated.”

In other words, with so much going on, many students just might not have shown, withdrawn from school by parents excited by the day.

Will England, an analyst at Sprint, wonders if something similar might happen in the Shawnee Mission district. England and his nurse wife, Nikki, have four kids, grades 6 through 12. They’re taking the day off, keeping the kids out of school with a plan to head north, closer to the center line.

“I will bet the school will close for lack of attendance,” England said. “Eighty percent of the kids will call in. You think they would have put it on the calendar — call it a snow day or whatever.”

Julia Carter, whose son, Andrew, is a senior at Shawnee Mission East, is likewise taking her son out of school. Carter has bought tons of pool toys and solar glasses. The plan is to have an eclipse-watching pool party — float in the pool and watch the sky darken.

“I really think they should make this a day off,” Carter said. “I want to spend this time with him. I want him to remember it. He is going to be going off to college soon. I want him to say, ‘I remember that. I remember exactly what I was doing.’ 

In the Kansas City area, almost all schools are remaining open. One of the few that is not is the high school at the private Notre Dame de Sion, 106th Street and Wornall Road, although the grade school, at 3823 Locust St., will be in session.

Allowing older students to take off seemed less disruptive to parents and their schedules, said Emily Taylor, the school’s communication director. School administrators made the decision to cancel Aug. 21 classes as calls came in early in the summer from high school faculty and parents.

Faculty members wanted off. Parents were interested in being with their kids. The school in response canceled for the day and is providing all the high school students with solar glasses and eclipse viewing packets.

Shannon Triplett is glad. She concedes to being a “total science geek” who had once thought of being an astronomer. With a day off from work, she and her sophomore daughter, Hannah, are planning to watch the eclipse from the property of the Shatto Milk Co. with a group.

“Being able to have that once-in-a-lifetime experience with your family is important,” Triplett said. “Being in high school (on the day of the eclipse), they probably wouldn’t have been paying attention anyway.”

Schools in districts within the path of totality — such as Independence, North Kansas City, Blue Springs, Liberty and Park Hill — should have prime views of the total eclipse, weather permitting. All schools plan to make the eclipse part of their day’s curriculum.

Schools outside the path, such as Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, Olathe, Lee’s Summit, Raytown and parts of the Kansas City district, are doing the same. Calling for a day off, said Ray Weikal, spokesman for the Kansas City Public Schools, was never part of their plan.

“I don’t think that was every really a serious thing that was discussed,” Weikal said.

He said the the eclipse is “tailor made to use as an educational opportunity.”

“We’re all about student achievement,” he said. “We just have too much to do. We don’t have the leeway to decide to take a day off for an event that day. …We just have too much important work to do to take a day off.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar