A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Is the risk associated with Monday’s solar eclipse sufficient reason to close schools?

Local school officials have recently reached out to me as one of their risk control advisers to ask if they should cancel classes because of Monday’s Great American Solar Eclipse.

How I would have longed for that call when I was in school. I’m pretty sure that I would have advised them to cancel the week before, the week of and the week after due to the “glaring” risks associated with this solar phenomenon.

These inquiries have allowed me to finally put to use those two college astronomy classes that I took as I dodged more challenging courses while I was at the University of Kentucky.

On Monday, the entire United States will experience a solar eclipse. The moon will cover at least part of the sun for 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through, anyone within a narrow path from Oregon to South Carolina will be able to view a brief total eclipse, which includes parts of western Kentucky. The moon will completely block the sun’s bright face for up to 2 minutes 40 seconds, turning day into night.

The temperature will begin to drop and, weather permitting, most of us will be able to experience one of nature’s most awesome sights — one that hasn’t occurred in this country since 1918.

Because of the rarity and risks associated with this extraordinary occurrence, school districts are being forced to consider closing for the day. When I first heard the announcement that a school district had decided to cancel classes for safety reasons, like you, my first reaction was “you’ve got to be kidding.”

But then my risk-adverse juices began to flow and I soon recognized the potential liabilities that districts could be faced with as a result of this once in a lifetime occurrence. As late as this week, to close or not to close continued to be a heated debate for many schools as they made their decisions.

Here’s the issue:

When a student steps onto school property, the well-being and safety for that child rests with the school district. To take it a step further, the liability rests with the entire community since as taxpayers we help fund local schools, including insurance costs.

That liability extends all the way home to their front door, so when a school superintendent is faced with something as rare as a total eclipse, you can image the “what if” scenarios that go through their minds.

Yes, a total solar eclipse presents a tremendous learning opportunity for the students, but so does feeding great white sharks in cages or mixing chemicals in science classes. As any good superintendent will tell you, effectively educating and preparing kids for their future is their top priority, but it’s concern over the safety of those kids and the school staff that keeps them awake at night.

For example I work with a school district in Central Kentucky that was pressured to an extent into having school a couple of winters ago after having missed several days due to a significant snow fall. In the haste to open back up to avoid extending the school year into the month of June, they regrettably decided to have convene classes for the last two days of the week.

Unfortunately, that decision resulted in two of the district’s biggest workers compensation claims due people suffering falls on the ice in the parking lot.

My point is that such decisions are not to be taken lightly and regardless of the decision, half of the community will applaud and the other half will disapprove.

So, the first rule of thumb — and advice that I give any school district making such a decision — is to put safety first, regardless of what the critics may say. And don’t second guess the decision as long and your concerns rest with the safety of the students and staff.

When reviewing the risks involved with the solar eclipse, there are several scenarios that play out in my mind that could result in liability for the schools.

For instance, what if a bus driver looks up at the solar eclipse while driving kids home and is temporary blinded, runs off the road students suffer significant injuries or death?

Should school districts issue eclipse glasses to all their bus drivers? Glasses could obstruct their vision. So do you not provide glasses and take the chance?

What if Johnny knocks the specially designed glasses off of Billy while the class is outside observing the eclipse and Billy is rendered blind afterwards. Is the school at fault?

What if a school district chooses to not cancel classes, doesn’t alter their hours and release all the students as scheduled at the height of the eclipse, then the following day, parents call the office, blaming them for their son’s or daughter’s temporary or permanent blindness as a result of their unsupervised viewing? The parent will want to know where to send that optometrist bill and who their attorney should contact about the pending lawsuit.

In today’s litigious happy society, these scenarios may appear farfetched, but they are really a distinct possibility. Trust me, I see it everyday. The event in question is always somebody else’s fault.

School districts are simply faced with the following risk management options — cancel classes, dismiss early, hold a non-traditional instructional day (work from home) or remain inside the school for the duration of the eclipse and dismissing afterwards.

When these questions started to come into our office, we first decided to defer to the insurance carriers since they would be on the hook for any claims. All were reluctant to provide an official position, but instead directed us to the NASA’s How to View the 2017 Solar Eclipse Safely flyer.

Another carrier replied that their official position was summed up in two simple words: “Be Safe!”

Not to speak for carriers, but when dealing independent school boards or districts, they know when it’s best to leave well enough alone and to let each chose the course they believe is right for them. So none of the insurance carriers were willing to issue a recommendation to guide our clients.

As for coverage related questions, we were able to determine that eclipses were not excluded on the policies we reviewed, but more questions remained.

Insurance isn’t too complicated, but when it comes to coverage-related questions, you need to absolutely read the fine print. To avoid dodging the question entirely and to be a trusted adviser to our school district clients, we issued the following statement:

“The “what if” claims scenarios cannot be given direct, final answers due to not knowing all the circumstances that may arise or be involved during the claim. While an eclipse or damage resulting from it is not specifically excluded from your policy, there can be extenuating circumstances to prevent or limit coverage.”

With any claim, no carrier can make a determination on coverage until the claim occurs.  All claims have varied circumstances and those variances may affect liability negatively or positively, so insurance carriers are reluctant to answer these “what if” scenarios for obvious reasons.

If schools district opt to remain open, issue approved glasses and make the eclipse viewing voluntary, then they should obtain written parental permission for younger children, who shouldn’t be allowed to make that decision on their own.

Begin a good riskologist, I decided not to dodge the question, and therefore will end this article by with an answer.

I always operate and err on the side of caution whenever trying to make sound risk management decision. Simply put, schools cannot afford the risk exposure to allow students outdoors to observe this solar phenomena. School districts also cannot release students during the event, hoping students exercise good judgement until they get home to their parents.

You have to consider what traffic will be like when schools dismiss. Transportation officials are projecting heavy traffic in many communities, especially where the total eclipse will appear.

Approximately 200 million people (a little less than two thirds of the nation’s population) live within a day’s drive of the eclipse’s path. Many of these visitors and locals will be outside, adding to the increased risk of distracted drivers.

Hospitals in the affected areas are bringing in additional staff for this very reason and additional police officers will be out to address this resulting traffic nightmare.

Back to school traffic is a naturalphenomenon in its own right. When you compound it with the solar eclipse, all coinciding during peak dismissal times for schools, this is the perfect traffic storm.

Many parents will choose to hold their kids out of school so they can witness this event as a family. The economic impact to the school district’s budget as a result of possible low attendance will make it too costly for some school district to remain open.

When considering all these variables, it is of my personal and professional opinion that school districts should cancel classes for the day. With that said, I just know that somewhere within my inner childhood there is an younger version of Keven snickering and laughing.

Be Safe My Friends.


Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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