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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.