Five months from now a remarkable event is going to take place near Lamorinda. On Monday, August 21, the path of a total solar eclipse will cross the United States from Oregon all the way down to South Carolina. When the path of totality crosses any country, this rare natural phenomenon is widely considered a national event, on par with national elections. Museums, schools, planetariums and all of the U.S. news media will be making preparations and accommodations for the 2017 eclipse.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the Acalanes Union, Moraga, and Lafayette school districts set the first day of school for August 21. The Orinda and Walnut Creek school districts start on the 22nd and 23rd, respectively, and those student will have an unhindered opportunity to drive up to Oregon for this extraordinary experience. I contacted AUHSD Superintendent Nickerson over a month ago and he assured me that the students in the other school districts could miss the first day of school to travel to the eclipse. However, I argued that the first day of school is more important to students than the other 179 days of school, and the current academic calendar – because of just one day – is an obstacle.
Figure Caption: An interactive map for the path of totality for the August 21, 2017, solar eclipse is available HERE.
It turns out that there are ways to shift the first day of school to August 22 by moving around a staff development day. However, from the school districts’ point of view, I was a lone voice with a fringe opinion, and they refused to change the calendar by one day. Yet, from my point of view, I was championing the future interests of many. I argued that witnessing amazing phenomena in nature inspires students to enter the STEM fields. As astronomy faculty at UC Berkeley, I know that astronomy is a “gateway science” to many other important fields such as computer science, physics, engineering, and medicine.
If students stay in the Lamorinda area they will see 76% of the Sun blocked by the Moon at around 9 AM. However, this cannot be viewed safely by the naked eye – special filters and techniques are required. This “partial eclipse” is educational, but a total solar eclipse reveals the Sun’s atmosphere, called the solar corona, to the naked eye. Standing in the Moon’s deep shadow and viewing the wispy solar corona is a once-in-a-lifetime, breathtaking experience. To put things in perspective, the next opportunity for people in Northern California to see a total solar eclipse pass nearby is 2045.
If you are interested in freeing up August 21 for the total solar eclipse viewing, please contact Superintendent Nickerson (JNickerson@acalanes.k12.ca.us) to voice your support for starting school on the 22nd. If your family has little interest in science, then let me tell you the following. When I discovered a planet called Fomalhaut b and showed it to the world as an image in 2008, I was contacted by many creative individuals who write, draw, sculpt, and paint. None were scientists, yet the tiny bit of the universe that I showed them filled their hearts and minds with inspiration. A total solar eclipse is exactly the same type of rare and marvelous phenomenon that will nourish young minds beyond any single day of school. Not everyone will be able to make the trip on August 21, but I hate to think that the current school calendar is going to stop many others who could have made the journey.
Paul Kalas, Ph.D.
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