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Safety first, science second for the eclipse in L.A. schools

It was safety first, science second — in many cases, a distant second — in Los Angeles schools during the solar eclipse Monday. And some teachers and administrators felt that — out of a lack of preparation and an excess of caution — the L.A. Unified School District flubbed a highly teachable moment.

A lot of students across the nation’s second-largest school system were unable to watch the eclipse and were kept inside, often with blinds drawn, and escorted under umbrellas if they had to step outdoors.

The natural phenomenon was treated more like a natural disaster.

Safety, of course, was a serious concern, given that looking directly at a solar eclipse can cause permanent vision damage. The event was not ignored — students in classrooms across the district probably watched on school TVs and computers or their own smartphones. But some say the school system acted too slowly to make sure as many students as possible could witness the big event in person.

“You saw an evolution of policy, and it finally got us to a place that was very good,” said school board member Nick Melvoin. “But not soon enough.”

District officials waited until Thursday afternoon to tell schools that parents would need to sign special new waivers to let their children watch the eclipse. The earliest the schools could get them out was on Friday, which meant they had to be returned the next school day, Monday, the day of the eclipse — and there would be no time to send out reminders.

No exact numbers were available, but at some schools, significant numbers of parents did get the waivers in on time.

Some, for whatever reason — perhaps confusion or fear that the schools wouldn’t let their children experience the event — kept their kids home long enough to watch the eclipse. When those students came in late, some schools marked them tardy. Melvoin said his office and senior administrators then scrambled to remove the tardies, which had resulted from schools doing what they presumed they were supposed to do.

Even with permission slips, the district’s first message to principals Thursday said that students would be allowed outside only if a school had NASA-approved protective eyewear.

That requirement, in the final hours when such glasses were in short supply, prompted many complaints, including an email to Supt. Michelle King from a South L.A. teacher who identified himself only as Steve.

“I have been planning to view the eclipse with my students for months,” he wrote. “I bought, with my own money, approved eclipse glasses, the kids made cereal box projectors and pinhole projectors, and were trained in the dangers of looking at the sun at any time. The first days of this school year in my class were filled with information and activities around the eclipse arrival.”

On Friday, after many such protests, the district eased this requirement to allow indirect viewing via homemade means — pinhole cards, boxes and the like.

One San Fernando Valley science teacher, who requested anonymity out of concern that telling her story could get her into trouble, said before the eclipse, “My fellow science teachers and I have, of course, known about the upcoming ‘All American Solar Eclipse’ for years and have eagerly been preparing instruction for the once-in-a-lifetime event.”

At the teacher’s school, viewing plans had been made and parent permission forms had gone out before the first district directive — with the demand for the new waiver — arrived.

The school called an emergency staff meeting and announced that students could no longer view the eclipse without the new waivers. The science department rushed to get the new forms out on Friday. In the end, eighth-graders in second- and third-period science got to see the eclipse, the teacher said: “They had a wonderful experience, but I am saddened that so many other students were forced to miss it.”

Middle-school teacher Brett Drugge reported a similar scenario at Orchard Academy in Bell.

Drugge’s school was relatively lucky. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory had given it 150 pairs of glasses. Students also had made their own pinhole viewers. Still, he said, because the district overreacted, 50 kids who forgot to bring in the new waivers missed seeing the eclipse.

Meanwhile, King tweeted a picture of herself in viewing glasses, looking delighted as she gazed, from her office, at the sky.

“Reminding the @laschools family to enjoy today's solar eclipse using NASA approved glasses,” she wrote. “Enjoy this historic event.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Times staff writer Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report.

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