When responsibility is in eclipse

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An extremely rare event is on the horizon – or at least somewhere in the sky – for our area next month. You likely know about it, since it has been highly talked about in the media. It’s an event that is exciting more due to its rarity than its glamour. I’m talking about the total solar eclipse set to occur in the afternoon hours of April 8. While most of North Dundas is not in the path of totality, it comes close – a drive just a few kilometres south from Winchester would do it. 

Many people, especially parents, likely first became aware of the upcoming solar eclipse when local school boards announced that a planned PA day in late April would be moved to April 8, intentionally keeping children out of school during the eclipse for safety reasons. I recently came across a CBC article that seemed to question that decision. The article is called “Eclipse casts opportunity vs. safety debate over schools”, and it appears to be fishing for attention rather than presenting any kind of intelligent argument.  

School boards have their reasons for not wanting students in their care on April 8, the glaringly obvious among them being that virtually every school in the Province dismisses students some time near or between 2:11 pm and 4:35 pm. It isn’t easy for children and youth to obey an instruction like “don’t look at the sun while heading to your bus”. Children are curious. They also need an average of eight repetitions of an instruction for it to sink in, while replacing a habit with a new behaviour can take 28 repetitions, on average. We all know that in an eclipse situation, with hundreds of kids under the supervision of a couple dozen adults, there would be at least a large handful in each school looking at the sun. Nature’s usual cues don’t apply here. The retina has no pain receptors, and retinal damage can take hours to show any signs or symptoms (something I learned from reading the Times, thanks to a Health Unit submission). In other words, eye damage would be likely if schools attempted to herd Ontario’s 2 million youth home during a solar eclipse. An article hinting that there is any “opportunity” for teaching during dismissal time is very misguided. Teaching doesn’t occur on the walk home. There is only an “opportunity” for risk. 

I hold a belief that I am afraid to share, because sharing it means accepting it. The belief: an overabundance of technology has eaten away at our attention spans. Kids are finding it increasingly difficult to pay attention to anything that doesn’t have the stimulatory capabilities of a smartphone or a Fortnite match. I believe that 20 years ago, a group of children could have followed a teacher’s or parent’s instruction to not look at the sun without protective eyewear during an eclipse, simply because they would have quietly and intently listened to the teacher’s or parent’s instructions in advance. They would have been able to think about it, and realize that the blindness possibility is too real to risk. 

I work with today’s youth. They are great at many things. They are compassionate, clever, respectful, and funny. We have done great at treating kids better than we did decades ago, and it’s showing in their regard for other human beings and their confidence in showing their independence and full potential. But one thing many kids today are not great at is focusing. I have even noticed a problem with attention spans in some adults I encounter in my daily life. I rely on the tiny rectangle in my pocket as much as the next guy – and why wouldn’t I, considering it’s an exponentially more powerful computer than the one that guided NASA’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969. But I also like to think that my phone hasn’t melted my brain down to a screen-dependent mush. 

The CBC article points to an institutional shift toward mitigating liability, which it suggests may be the reason schools are cautious about having students during an eclipse. I think the shift is elsewhere. I think that many parents rely too heavily on technology as a parenting tool, and wish to shift responsibility onto anyone but themselves. A parent decades ago finding out that their child suffered eye damage at school after looking at the sun during an eclipse would likely have the toughest questions for their own child, wondering why he or she disobeyed the teacher’s instructions. Today, the first questions would be directed toward the teacher, who would somehow be expected to constantly police the gaze of 20 curious children all at once. 

If this is indeed an issue of liability concerns, then it isn’t just about a solar eclipse. Schools are concerned about liability because responsibility itself is in eclipse lately. A total solar eclipse will likely not pass our area for approximately 375 years after April 8. Perhaps school closures are a good thing on that day. It will give parents a chance to create some memories by taking responsibility for their own child’s experience of the historic event, while also discovering just how difficult it is to enforce a simple instruction like “don’t look at the sun” for today’s youth. If one child is hard, just imagine 20. Sometimes, experience really is the best teacher, and not just for kids. 

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