ST. PETERSBURG — Hunter Holland came to school Monday with a NASA space T-shirt and solar viewers in his button-up shirt pocket. But he'd rather be in Missouri.
The 16-year-old Shorecrest Preparatory School senior was ready to witness the first solar eclipse in his lifetime. As the co-president of the school's astronomy club, he excitedly gave a presentation to his classmates on what to expect that afternoon.
It would be nothing like what Holland's grandparents would experience outside of Springfield, Mo., where the afternoon would turn to night. St. Petersburg was to get 81 percent coverage, he said, still strong enough for all 950 Shorecrest students to wear their viewers at all times.
"This is probably going to be the most-watched solar eclipse in human history," Holland said.
Ready with makeshift cereal box viewers, cardboard glasses and curiosity, solar gawkers across the Tampa Bay area flocked outside Monday to glimpse the fleeting phenomenon, the last total eclipse to stretch across the U.S. for another seven years.
The sun cast crescent-shaped shadows, peaking around 2:49 p.m. as the day turned dimmer.
Local school districts allowed students to miss classes with excused absences, and many families jumped at the opportunity. In Hernando County, for example, 8,000 students — 37 percent of the district's total enrollment — didn't come to school Monday.
An unexpectedly large crowd of 5,000 took the day off to participate in the full experience at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry. Inside, flat screen TVs displayed a live feed of the eclipse from NASA while visitors stood in line to see the eclipse for themselves through telescopes. Many said they came because they weren't able to obtain eclipse glasses.
Jodie Powers, of Brandon, brought her three boys. She home-schools them and spent the morning teaching them about the last time a total eclipse stretched from coast to coast.
Woodrow Wilson was president, she told them.
"This is our science and history lesson, wrapped together," she said.
In Pasco County, Bayonet Point Middle School in New Port Richey purchased 1,000 pairs of approved eye glasses for students, faculty, bus drivers and parents. Students spent days before the event learning about the phases of the moon in science class, the mythology related to the sun and the eclipses in language arts, and the sizes of different stars using equations in math.
"It's been pretty cool," said civics teacher David Suraci. "You can't get a better teaching experience than this."
Holland, the Shorecrest senior, is already looking forward to the next total eclipse, where the path of totality will again pass over his grandparents' home. He promised them he'd be there.
And Holland will be 45 when an eclipse will occur right over Florida in 2045. He plans to keep his solar viewers and write down the dates of each eclipse on the inside.
"No matter who you are, your political affiliation, your sexuality or your religion, everyone thinks this is cool," he said.
Times staff writers Christopher O'Donnell, Michele Miller, Megan Reeves, Melissa Gomez and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.