Many PBC schools were largely empty today as kids stayed home for the eclipse

Seventh graders in Sam Mazzetesta’s civics class watch the partial eclipse at Christa McAuliffe Middle School. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Classrooms sat mostly empty in dozens of Palm Beach County public schools Monday as parents kept their children home for the day’s solar eclipse.

Across the county, teachers reported widespread absences in their classrooms, with many saying only a handful of kids showed up in the morning. The school district gave parents the option to keep their kids home for the day or pull them out early, saying that any missed class time will be considered an excused absence.

“My classes were empty,” said Jacquelyn Whitener, a teacher at Seminole Ridge High School. “The largest class today was four of 26 (students).”

It was the same story at all school levels. At many campuses, teachers reported that less than a quarter of their students had appeared.

“It’s a ghost town at Golden Grove’s car line,” wrote Adam Miller, Golden Grove Elementary’s principal, on Twitter Monday morning, as he posted pictures of a single car dropping off a child at the Loxahatchee school.

At Clifford O Taylor/Kirklane Elementary School in Palm Springs, teachers were informed that fewer than 200 of the school’s roughly 1,300 students showed up for school, teacher Kelly Melvin said.

” It turned out to pretty much be a teacher workday,” she said. “They could have saved a bunch on gas for buses.”

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said early reports indicated that less than half of the school district’s roughly 170,000 students showed up to school. Administrators had expected attendance to be lower than usual, but Avossa said he was surprised by the extent.

“For me personally, it was higher than expected,” Avossa said. But he added that the school district’s goal was to give parents flexibility for the historic astronomical event and that “we feel good about the decision.”

“We put children’s safety first,” he said. “We have an obligation to provide a consistent, safe place for kids. And if half of them did show up, that’s 90,000 kids.”

Maya Stuart, 12, (front center) watches the partial eclipse with fellow students at Christa McAuliffe Middle School with protective glasses provided by the school. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Higher than usual absentee rates were widely expected and were indirectly encouraged by the school district, which promised parents and students excused absences while warning them of the risks involved in allowing their children to stare at the eclipse unsupervised.

RELATED: PBC schools will excuse absences during eclipse

Even so, many teachers said they were surprised by the extent. Some suggested that school district leaders should have cancelld classes for the day so teachers wouldn’t have to give lessons that most students wouldn’t see.

“Most of the teachers here are furious,” one middle school teacher said. “It’s a waste of resources. The make-up work that teachers are going to have to give and explain is going to be a nightmare. A waste for the buses.”

While some private schools also held classes today, private Catholic schools operated by the Diocese of Palm Beach canceled classes for the day after concluding that “parents will be the best persons to supervise their children” during the eclipse.

Mitch Goldberg, whose son attends Eagles Landing Middle School, a public school west of Boca Raton, said that just a handful of students were on his son’s school bus this morning, far fewer than usual.

“The bus was packed last week, not an empty seat,” Goldberg said. “He said less than 10 were on today.”

Some students who did show up at school were treated to full-blown viewing sessions, complete with protective eye-wear purchased by the school.

The largest event appeared to be at Christa McAuliffe Middle School west of Boynton Beach, where science teachers and administrators organized a viewing event for the entire school.

Monday afternoon, about 900 student filed out onto the school’s grassy fields, where teachers and staff monitored them as they gazed up at the eclipsed sun in three one-minute bursts.

“I think this is so much better than the kids staying home,” Principal Jeffrey Silverman said. “This is one of those things they will remember forever.”

Gabriel Nermesan, a 12-year-old student, grinned as he gazed up at the sun through his protective glasses. He said that he enjoyed the opportunity to view the rare event, although he said he expected the sun to loom larger in the sky.

“I thought it’d be bigger,” he said.

Like schools across the country, the county’s public school system struggled over the past two weeks to find an appropriate balance between protecting students from risks of damaged vision and using the eclipse as a learning tool.

Outdoor activities were canceled at all district schools countywide for the afternoon, and many middle schools delayed dismissal by 15 minutes.

But after initially prohibiting all outdoor eclipse-viewing, the school district decided to let teachers bring students out for three-minute viewing sessions with protective glasses.

Schools are altered schedules and classroom assignments to prevent students from being outdoors longer than necessary. Some schools, for example, said they would hold students indoors until parents arrive to pick them up.

Avossa said that the greatest concerns revolved around releasing students after school, when distracted drivers might pose a risk on the roads and unsupervised students might be inclined to stare at the partially eclipsed sun.

But he said Monday afternoon that there had been no reports of trouble so far. And he said that at many schools teachers had taken advantage of the low attendance to get to know their students better or to do planning work.

“At the beginning of the school year there’s lots to do,” he said.

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