It's a Total Eclipse So Be Smart

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On August 21, 2017, many parts of Nebraska will be in the path of a total solar eclipse.  NASA refers to a total solar eclipse as “the most spectacular astronomical event that most people will experience in their lives.”  The event presents a unique and exciting opportunity for students to see a natural phenomenon that brings together many of the mathematical, scientific, and historical concepts and principles taught throughout the year.  The eclipse can also have observable effects on plants and animals. 

Many schools are already making plans to view the event and to incorporate it into curriculum and activities for the day.  It is important to remember that while the eclipse presents a unique learning opportunity, it also presents unique risks.

Risks Associated with Viewing

Incorporating the eclipse into student learning should not be discouraged.  However, any incorporation must be done conscientiously to ensure safety and minimize danger.  Schools are in a very difficult situation as they will be assuming the responsibility of overseeing students while they are watching a phenomenon that could potentially damage their eyes if proper precautions are not taken. Student safety is always a top priority, and it is only safe to view the eclipse with the naked eye when the moon completely covers the disk of the sun.  At any other time it is not safe to view the eclipse without the proper precautionary measures.  Failure adhere to proper precautionary measures can result in permanent ocular damage and vision loss.

Observing these risks, we have received many questions about the precautions a school can or should take to avoid potential liability issues and protect student safety.  For example, many schools have already purchased special eclipse-safety glasses to view the event.  Others are planning class projects and other ways to view the event safely.  If you have not already done so, we encourage you to consider communicating with your staff and fellow administrators to determine what plans your school has and the items you deem reasonably necessary to ensure the eclipse can be viewed safely.

Mitigating Potential Liability

Some schools have also begun the process of notifying parents or even circulating parent permission forms for viewing the eclipse at school. We've received many questions on the "right way" to account for liability concerns.  While seeking an “opt in” permission form back from parents is a permissible step, we are not sure how practical or legally useful it is in terms of protecting your district.  We believe that serving each parent with a notice regarding the eclipse and allowing them to “opt out” is a more appropriate measure to mitigate potential liability stemming from the risks associated with the eclipse.  This is also more consistent with the way districts address other curricular experiences.

Schools should confer with their individual attorneys now to solicit their legal advice on how to best take advantage of this tremendous learning opportunity without also assuming potential liability.  If you are a KSB client and would like to receive our full legal analysis and an “opt-out” notification and release you can use, please contact one of us and we will be happy to provide it to you for a low flat rate.  Our analysis is intended to guide you and your board through the legal standards you should consider and practical issues surrounding the eclipse viewing plans you have already made and may be making as next school year approaches. 

If you have questions, we recommend that you consult with your school district’s attorney or call Karen, Steve, Bobby, or Tim.