TAMPA — Despite canceling bus service completely at almost two dozen campuses and slashing routes elsewhere, Hillsborough County educators insist they will try to have a normal school day today.
Whatever normal means, on the first Good Friday in years that the district has held classes.
At half of Hillsborough's schools, more than 15 percent of teachers told district officials they were thinking about taking the day off. And more than a dozen schools could see at least one in three faculty members absent.
"I think it's unfortunate that there are going to be this many people taking the day off," said Hillsborough school spokeswoman Linda Cobbe, urging families without religious obligations to send children to school.
"It's a school day," she said.
School Board Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero said she's been warning for three years that holding school on Good Friday would cause problems because of protests from the Christian community. Schools switched this year to an academic calendar recognizing no religious holidays.
But religion probably is not the only thing driving today's numbers. Many families may have been influenced by reports of widespread — and potentially overstated — numbers of teachers and other personnel taking the day off. Other students may have had no choice but to stay home after seeing their bus service canceled.
At more than 80 schools, at least one bus route was eliminated. Sickles High is possibly the most affected, with every regular bus run for the northwest Hillsborough school canceled. That means students along 31 routes will have to find their own transportation.
School officials worked to continue bus service for students with disabilities.
To accommodate working parents who have to drive their children, school officials plan to keep every school open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. if needed.
It will be a day for waiting to see what happens. Madison Middle at first blush looked to be one of the worst-hit schools. It reported that as many as 35 out of 57 teachers were thinking about taking the day off.
But school officials say that was little more than a worst-case scenario. In reality, assistant principal Ken Hart expects to have just nine teachers absent today. And he has seven substitutes to help cover their classes.
"We're anticipating a normal school day," he said.
Still, better-than-expected is likely to be far from perfect. Pierce Middle, which initially reported that half of its teachers were taking off, now expects the number to be closer to one-fourth.
"I'm closing the media center and using the media specialist, media aides, bilingual aides and technical aides to cover classes," principal Victor Fernandez said. "I've instructed (teachers) all to not cover anything new, to do reviews. It's an opportunity to catch up."
Schools informed parents about bus route changes with automated phone calls and letters home. And administrators were told to encourage students to come to school.
The last-minute scramble to shuffle cafeteria workers to where they were needed, pre-packing breakfasts and lunchtime sandwiches along the way, had all the trappings of an emergency operation.
"It kind of reminds me of opening the shelters," said Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough's manager of student nutrition services, who's given up on today's planned menus. "We'll just see what happens."
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.