TAMPA — Student absences in Hillsborough schools are significantly higher on early-release days, and some School Board members say the shorter schedule deserves further scrutiny.
The number of absences is 22 percent higher on days when school is dismissed two hours early, a review of Wednesday attendance data shows. In elementary schools, the difference is 41 percent.
"The students love it, hands down," said School Board member Jennifer Faliero, who launched a survey on Facebook. "The parents, not so much, especially working parents who have to arrange transportation and child care in their homes."
Early dismissal days have existed since 2008, but were increased during last year's budget crisis. Lacking money to give teachers a pay raise, the administration instead offered additional planning time.
The practice is not unique to Hillsborough. In Pinellas County, schools dismiss early every Wednesday.
Some teachers have told Hillsborough School Board members they would rather get a smaller number of full planning days.
But such a move could cause the school year to drop below the 180-day minimum required by the state, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said during a School Board meeting last week.
Officials also contend that teachers are more likely to make good use of those planning hours if they already are at school.
Parents, meanwhile, question the effect on education and the impact on children without parents who stay home.
"I'd like to know how much our kids are getting that day in the way of instruction," said Debbie Fabrizio, president of the PTSA at Mulrennan Middle School in Valrico.
As a stay-at-home mother, she doesn't have trouble with child care or transportation. But, she asked, "How many people are not sending kids to school on those days?"
In the sample of 13 Wednesdays that The St. Petersburg Times examined, there were an average of 10,481 absences on full Wednesdays and an average of 12,842 on those that end two hours early.
The difference was more pronounced when elementary school absences were isolated: 4,243 for full days, compared with 6,012 for half days.
Stephen Hegarty, a spokesman for the school district, said he does not consider the numbers reliable because total student population fluctuates throughout the year.
Still, he said, "we are going to provide numbers for our School Board because they have requested that."
Specifically, Faliero said she wants data on both attendance and teachers' work hours.
Others agreed the issue needs a closer look.
"As a working parent having to deal with half days, it's sometimes a struggle," member April Griffin said. But "as a School Board member, I know the needs of our teachers."
Teachers and parents generally agreed that, as the St. Petersburg Times numbers suggest, the hardship is greatest for younger children, who cannot stay home alone and who often rely on their parents for transportation.
Johanna Arroyo, a family resource coordinator at Tampa General Hospital, has a son in third grade at Cannella Elementary School in Carrollwood.
"They charge extra at our day care on those days," she said. She knows working parents whose children have had to miss school. "If I didn't have day care, that would be an issue for me, too," she said.
Single parent Tara McHugh, a massage therapist, said she has to leave her job at a chiropractor's office a half hour early to pick her up her daughter at Carrollwood's Essrig Elementary School — and her pay is docked.
"One day a month, we could handle it," she said. "But every other week is ridiculous."
Barb Boler, a working mother and PTSA volunteer at Smith Middle School in Citrus Park, said the schedule hasn't negatively affected her son. "He's home early, and gaming a few more hours," she said. "It breaks up the school year for the kids."
At high schools, which sometimes schedule club time on the short days, teachers said transportation is rarely a problem because many kids drive or get rides with friends.
Jeannette Teeden, a reading coach at Gibsonton's East Bay High School, said she enjoys the opportunity to collaborate with her fellow teachers, and thinks two-hour planning periods are far more effective than full days.
"This way, I'm here already. I might as well stay the two extra hours and do what I need to do," she said.
"I would really would be disappointed if they took it away."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or email@example.com.