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Hillsborough schools prepare for Good Friday flu

TAMPA — Hillsborough schools are furiously making plans to cover classrooms and accommodate late buses on Good Friday, expecting high numbers of teachers and bus drivers to take the day off.

This spring marks the first time in years that Hillsborough has held classes on the Christian holiday. Nobody knows quite what to expect.

"Parents, please hear this: Your buses are going to be late," School Board chairwoman Jennifer Faliero said. "Be prepared for a backup plan."

School officials say about 200 bus drivers have requested the day off — twice as many as on a typical day. That leaves the transportation department scrambling to cover bus routes with about 80 percent of their work force.

Regardless, classes will go on. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Hillsborough is joining Pinellas schools, county government, and many businesses that stay open on Good Friday.

"We'll have a safe, productive environment at our schools on Friday," she said.

Elia asked parents for patience. Mondays and Fridays already see high absenteeism. She said schools will notify parents about contingency plans through automated phone calls.

For example, if buses are running late in one part of the county, parents may be able to drop children off early — or pick them up later in the day. Administrators may be dispatched to cover classrooms if needed.

The final head count is sure to get scrutinized. The question of whether to hold school on Good Friday has sparked controversy like few issues in recent years.

The School Board drew national attention for its two-year debate over student vacation days coinciding with Christian and Jewish holidays. This year's calendar is strictly secular.

Religious leaders have voiced differing reactions. In Valrico, St. Stephen Catholic Church is offering a Good Friday retreat for students, 4 years old through middle school.

About 75 children and 20 youth volunteers are expected at the program, which will include a lesson on the Stations of the Cross designed for children, music, crafts and cheese pizza for lunch, since meat is not allowed on Good Friday. There also will be an Easter egg hunt.

"I felt that God was presenting us with a wonderful opportunity to reach our children,'' said Father Bill Swengros, whose parish includes a school that is closed this week. He thinks public schools should close Friday.

"Tolerance is a two-way street and separation of church and state doesn't mean being areligious or Christophobic," he said.

School Board member Jack Lamb said his priest at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa also addressed the issue during services Sunday. His priest initially was upset about holding school on Good Friday, which is not a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics. But he now sees advantages to encouraging family decisions, without giving mobs of students a day off to spend at the mall.

"It's putting the emphasis on family values and teaching children about religion," said Lamb, who will be a lector at the afternoon service. It starts at 3 p.m., he noted, when classes already have ended for many students.

Students who miss school for religious reasons on Friday won't be penalized. District policies call for the absence to be excused and ask parents to notify the school in person or by phone that day.

Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at

. fast facts

Bus rules changing

The Hillsborough School Board on Tuesday approved transportation changes for the next school year, including ending bus service to private day care centers. Except in emergencies, parents won't be able to send notes authorizing their child to ride home on a different bus to a friend's house.

Pinellas middle schools would be allowed to offer more elective classes and possibly lengthen their day under a schedule change proposed by the district.

The six-period day now in place at most middle schools would be replaced by a schedule allowing for as many as two additional classes. Administrators have proposed extending the middle school day by as much as 22 minutes.

The proposal is partly a response to a bill in the state Senate that would require more physical education classes in middle school. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, is expected to sail through the Senate's PreK-12 Education Committee in a hearing today.

The state already requires middle school PE but allows students to opt out in favor of gifted classes and yearlong electives. Only half of Florida's middle school students are enrolled in PE, according to the Department of Education.

Constantine helped lead last year's effort to require more PE classes in elementary school. He said Tuesday his efforts to restore PE go back about five years and are rooted in concerns over childhood obesity.

"It just needs to be done," he said, citing studies by the state. "There are just too many kids running around today that have no concept of play time. … It's the right thing to do."

The district is debating how it might implement the proposal and whether it could be in place for the 2008-09 school year.

In Hillsborough County, most middle school students already take PE daily, said Josie Sanders, general director for middle schools.

"If it's mandated, it's mandated," she said of the PE bill. "My understanding is if it does happen, it won't be too much of a challenge for us."

But Steve Vanoer, Hillsborough's PE supervisor, worries about having enough teachers in place for daily fitness lessons at every school. If the legislation passes, he said schools will face some scheduling hurdles.

Hillsborough schools prepare for Good Friday flu 03/18/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 10:54am]
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