TAMPA — A calendar committee has recommended that Good Friday be a day off for students next year in the Hillsborough County schools.
Citing high absenteeism, members of the advisory panel voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to remove the day from the student calendar for the 2010-11 school year. The change requires a formal School Board vote.
About 42 percent of students and 19 percent of bus drivers were absent this year on Good Friday, which fell on April 2.
That was an improvement from 2008, when 58 percent of students and 400 bus drivers stayed home.
Under district policy, students can skip school to observe religious holidays and must be allowed to make up missed work.
While Good Friday is scheduled as a makeup day for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test next year, when it falls on April 22, officials said they could work around that obstacle if the board alters the calendar.
Some committee members said there was no reason to change given the improved attendance since 2008, when the board first moved to a secular calendar.
"I think we're headed in the right direction," said Bevis Elementary School teacher Leigh Crosson. "I think we should stick with our secular calendar."
Others said the move could be seen as giving preferential treatment to one religious group over others.
The issue has struck a "raw nerve" with the Jewish community, said Jonathan Ellis, president of the Tampa Jewish Federation.
He suggested arranging the calendar to keep schools closed during the main holidays of all major religions, but only four out of 30 panel members backed him.
Absenteeism on Good Friday was far higher among high schoolers than elementary students this year, at 69.5 percent vs. 25 percent, leading some to suggest that older students were heading not to church but to the beach.
"They're worshipping the sun," said Spoto High teacher David Peacock.
Regardless of students' motivation, committee members said little learning was going on due to the high absence rate.
"We just don't get to teach as well," said Sam Whitten, assistant director of assessment and accountability.
Public schools are forbidden from taking religion into account when they set calendars, board attorney Tom Gonzalez said Tuesday. But they are within their rights to declare a holiday for practical reasons, such as low attendance.
"The Constitution doesn't require you to hold school on Christmas, as long as people aren't going to show up," he told the board.
Yet the calendar committee's final vote — 24 in favor of the calendar change, three opposed, and three abstaining — showed the issue is far from simple.
Ramzy Kilic, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Tampa, said he was one of the abstainers.
"I didn't want the perception that a Muslim was voting against Christians," he explained.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.