When the Scott County School System and the Oneida Special School District opted to dismiss classes prior to the onset of Monday's solar eclipse, they were heeding the concerns of a growing number of parents who had called on each school system to close for safety reasons.
The Knox County School System was the subject of scorn and ridicule earlier this summer when it became the first school system in East Tennessee to announce that classes were being canceled for the eclipse. But as health experts raised awareness about the dangers of looking at the partially-eclipsed sun without special viewing glasses, the laughter turned to concern, prompting other parents to call on their children's school systems to follow Knox County's lead.
Scott County is not in the path of the total eclipse, meaning viewers who want to fully experience the eclipse will have to drive to other locales, such as Crossville or Wartburg. Or they can join the thousands of others who are expected to make a short pilgrimage down Interstate 75 to Sweetwater.
But the sun will be mostly obscured by the moon in Scott County — between 98 percent and 99 percent, experts say. And while the difference between that and a total eclipse will be like the difference between daylight and dark, as the Independent Herald pointed out in an article this week, it will still be a unique experience — one that will prompt kids and adults alike to look skyward as the eclipse reaches its peak around 2:30 p.m.
That could have lifelong consequences for anyone — kid or adult — who does not have safe viewing glasses.
There were two lines of thought regarding school administrators' decision for Monday. Many parents were concerned about sending their children to school, fearful that teachers could not supervise dozens of kids under their care and that a child would look at the eclipsed sun without glasses. However, others have pointed out that kids who aren't in school are in some cases less likely to be supervised — whether they're home alone because their parents are working, or because their parents aren't aware of the danger of looking at the sun without glasses — which means those kids, however few they may be, will be more likely to risk permanent eye damage by looking at the sun.
Both are valid concerns, but the former is no longer valid, since local students will not be in school as the eclipse occurs. The combined efforts of the Scott County School System and the Oneida Special School District will ensure that every student in Scott County has a pair of viewing glasses that will allow them to safely view Monday's phenomenon. It's up to parents to be sure that their children are wearing the glasses.
There will be those who scoff at the warnings of health experts. They'll equate it to bicycle helmets, remembering that they viewed an eclipse at some point in their childhood without glasses, and they're fine.
Forget that notion. The danger is real, and there are plenty of older Americans who have experienced eclipses in the past who can personally testify to the dangers of eye damage if you look at the eclipse without glasses.
Dick Land, of the Schepens Eye Research Institute, says that parents should be "especially cautious" with children.
"Young eyes are most at risk during the partial eclipse," Land said. "Their lens and media is most clear, and the temptation to stare (is) great."
While much of the media focus on the eclipse's potential danger from the eyes comes from the threat of heat burning a hole in the retina — similar to placing a magnifying glass on a leaf — Land said there is growing evidence that excessive exposure to blue light, which occurs during a partial eclipse, results in macular degeneration and blindness in people as they become older.
Looking directly at an eclipsed sun is no more dangerous than looking at the sun on a normal day, but experts say the threat during an eclipse comes because the eye is fooled. While the brightness of the sun forces us to look away quickly on a normal day, the relative "darkness" of the sun during a partial eclipse encourages us to look at it longer — but our eyes are being subjected to the same amount of radiation and blue light.
"The normal safety feature of eye motion is defeated by the cognitive event of having a point to fixate," Land said. "The two sharp cusps are points that the eye may focus on and now the damaging image on the retina is stopped on the most sensitive neural tissue. This short stoppage begins damage from all mechanisms, too much blue light, too much UV, and too much heat. This damage is not recoverable."
Land said the eclipse is perfectly safe to view — and should be viewed — with appropriate glasses.
"It is my greatest disappointment that so many have missed seeing one of nature's most beautiful events because of misinformation," he said.d "No photograph, no TV or other laboratory technique can represent or capture this unique physical phenomenon. The colors and contrast, the detail and structure of the image is beyond reproduction."
Some experts say it only takes about a minute and a half for your eyes to be permanently damaged by the sun — and the damage is cumulative, meaning you don't have to stare at the sun without looking away for it to be harmful.
Land said there is no exact number for eye damage, but that children are most at risk and can generally look at the sun for shorter periods of time before damage occurs.