TAMPA — Every school in Hillsborough County plans to stay open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Good Friday to accommodate parents who might have to transport their children on a day when many bus drivers and teachers are taking off.
On Friday, the first time in years that Hillsborough is holding classes on the Christian holiday, school officials expect about 20 percent of teachers and bus drivers to be absent. The numbers vary wildly by school. That means an undetermined number of bus routes will be canceled. And in some schools, they'll box up lunches in advance and combine some classes.
As the district scrambles to notify parents through automated phone calls and letters, the bigger question may be how so many workers could be allowed to take the same day off.
Pinellas schools, Hillsborough County government, law enforcement and many companies don't seem hamstrung to keep their operations going on Friday.
"We have a responsibility for the children," said School Board member Candy Olson, who said she wouldn't be surprised if teachers just want a break Friday after two weeks of state testing. "If a teacher takes off, the children aren't supervised. If a bus driver takes off, the children aren't being driven."
She wants the district to revisit a policy that allows school employees to take a personal day whenever they want it — no questions asked.
Olson suggested the district and its unions consider negotiating incentives to keep people on the job at critical times.
Others see the rash of Good Friday absences as continuing a culture clash at the root of the calendar wars that have plagued Hillsborough schools for almost three years now. The School Board switched this year to an academic calendar that recognizes no religious holidays.
"What I see — which is something I haven't seen in a long time — is Christians uniting," said School Board member Jennifer Faliero, who favors a day off on Good Friday. "They are fearing that their religion is being overlooked."
Board member April Griffin saw it differently. At a workshop Wednesday, she asked whether the district's policies permitted people to "worship the sun on Good Friday at the beach."
"Yes, ma'am," answered School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez.
School employees can take up to six personal days each year. Students who miss classes for religious reasons on Friday are guaranteed excused absences.
"I understand that there are people who do observe going to church and this is an important spiritual day for them," Griffin said. "But go to the beach on Friday and see what you find."
Other districts have less permissive policies for employees. In Hernando, for example, teachers must get their principal's approval to use a personal day.
Several years ago, Hillsborough looked into curtailing the high-absentee rates on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the last day before Spring Break. But the unpopular effort was dropped.
Many teachers now see a day off on Good Friday as their right.
"The community has just been extraordinarily adamant that the students be allowed to be absent from school on a religious holiday with parental permission," said Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "The same privilege is extended to adults in the workplace."
Time may settle the uproar. When Pinellas schools moved to hold classes on Good Friday five years ago, more than 12 percent of teachers and thousands of students stayed home. But it became accepted, said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union.
"Breaking a tradition is tough," he said. "Once it's broken, it's done. That's what Hillsborough is doing."
The issue is moot next year. Good Friday happens to fall during Spring Break, on a calendar modeled after this year's. So the calendar wars may take a hiatus, at least until 2009-10.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.