First day of fall classes will include eclipse timeout

When the first total solar eclipse to occur in the Cullowhee area in more than 500 years darkens the skies at 2:35 p.m. on the opening day of classes for the fall 2017 semester, Western Carolina University students, faculty and staff won’t be stuck indoors casting wistful glances out the window.

That’s because the university’s Executive Council decided earlier this year that no classes will be held between 1 and 3 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21, to give students and faculty the opportunity to witness this rare celestial phenomenon.  In addition, staff members who are able to be away from their desks or duty stations will be allowed to step outside to observe the eclipse, said Melissa Canady Wargo, WCU’s chief of staff.

The university is exploring means of providing special solar viewing glasses to all faculty, staff and students prior to the eclipse. Student Affairs staff members are in the planning stages of activities and events in the vicinity of the A.K. Hinds University Center lawn and the Central Plaza fountain area.

“We want members of our campus community to experience this event safely,” said Wargo, who is leading a small group of faculty and staff in planning logistics and activities for eclipse day. “It is a stroke of unfortunate timing that the eclipse will be taking place during the busiest time of the year on our campus – the start of a new academic year.”

Parking lots are expected to be to the point of overflowing beginning with Freshman Move-in Day on Friday, Aug. 18, into the first week of classes, and the university will not be holding activities that are open to the general public because there would be nowhere for visitors to park, she said.

The university is advising incoming students and their parents to book lodging in the area as soon as possible because many area hotels and rentals are already nearing capacity.  Information is available at the website info.wcu.edu/eclipse.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the entirety of the moon passes in front of the sun and completely covers it, resulting in daytime darkness. Eclipse watchers should use special solar viewing glasses to avoid damage to the eyes from the sun’s intense rays, which are not blocked by the moon.

The Aug. 21 happening will mark the first total solar eclipse visible in Cullowhee since July 20, 1506. The next one, astronomers say, will occur Oct. 17, 2153, making the 2017 eclipse a once-in-a-lifetime event. Cullowhee and the surrounding area will be experiencing nearly two minutes of total darkness beginning at 2:35 p.m. Aug. 21, making Jackson County a prime viewing location.

Travel and tourism industry representatives in Jackson County are working to plan events around the eclipse and to prepare for a probable influx of people, one that has the potential to have a large impact on the region’s tourism economy. For more information on eclipse-related activities in Jackson County, visit the website https://www.discoverjacksonnc.com/total-solar-eclipse/.