TAMPA — A lot more Hillsborough students skipped school Friday than bothered to show up, turning the first day in years with classes on Good Friday into one of the strangest on the books.
More than 100,000 students — almost 60 percent — took a holiday after school officials warned all week about excessive absenteeism among employees.
Scores of bus routes were canceled and regular service was eliminated at almost two dozen schools after about 40 percent of bus drivers took Friday off.
Most of Hillsborough's high schools were nearly empty. Eight in 10 students took advantage of a no-penalty absence policy.
"A lot of kids went to the beach today," said 15-year-old Alonso High sophomore Taylor Peck, lunching with a classmate at the California Pizza Kitchen before an afternoon pedicure. "Like three-fourths of the school."
All week, many students pestered parents with stories about how teachers were blowing the day off, saying Friday was for movies and free time. The parents of one Plant High student called the school to check out the rumors, and were outraged to learn they were true.
"We were just totally blindsided," said Chris Slowey, 44. "They're always complaining they don't have enough time to teach the curriculum, and then they show movies all day."
The South Tampa mother was doubly upset that two of her younger children received a totally different message from the administration at MacFarlane Park Elementary, which managed to hold a normal day.
"How is it there's not consistency across the board that regardless of our numbers, we're teaching?" she asked.
The finger-pointing may have only just begun.
Advocates of the traditional Christian holiday say they predicted this. Others wonder if the mass employee absenteeism, especially among bus drivers, was a protest over a lost day off.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia denied the notion, along with suggestions that inconsistent communication caused wildly different school attendance rates. She said she'll study the numbers and review the controversial decision to switch to an academic calendar that recognizes no religious holidays.
But School Board Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero says she heard from Elia and another high-ranking district officer that they'll never again recommend school on Good Friday — regardless of the suggestions of a committee of parents, teachers and administrators that's supposed to review the calendar each year.
"This is not up for debate anymore in my opinion, or in the opinion of the administration," said Faliero, who has warned for years that school on Good Friday was a bad idea.
Other board members don't see things that way. But no one can ignore student absenteeism that was seven to eight times higher than on recent Fridays.
"This was a protest," said board member April Griffin. She also blamed alarmist media coverage and parental confusion.
Griffin is not alone in questioning the huge number of bus drivers who took the day off. Luis Perez, president of their union, the Hillsborough School Employees Federation, said about half the drivers who decided to take the day off made up their minds in the last two days. That "doesn't seem like a religious thing to me," he said. There was no organized union effort, he added.
School officials praised the drivers and employees who showed up, including teachers who reported in higher-than-expected numbers at many schools. The district got requests for substitutes from about 2,000 teachers, but did not have a final count on their attendance Friday.
In Pinellas, which has held school on Good Friday for several years, almost 10 percent of teachers were absent — up 40 percent from a typical Friday. The district did not have absentee numbers for students, but also faced thin crowds the first year it held school on Good Friday.
In Hillsborough, the superintendent said students who showed up enjoyed bonding time with teachers and small tutorials. She believed the district sent a clear message all week that learning would take place.
That's not what students and parents across the county said they heard.
Dylan Griswold, a 16-year-old Plant High junior, slept in and played video games before heading to Ashley's Espresso on Dale Mabry Highway. The night before, he considered going to school, but most of his teachers had said they'd be showing movies all day.
"Except for my first-period teacher, who said we'd be reading a book," he said.
Desks may have been empty, but the Brandon mall was not. Dozens of students hung out and shopped.
Kandy Bee spent the day with her school-age daughter and niece, shopping for Easter Sunday outfits. Bee, who grew up in Hillsborough, said she always had Good Friday off, and she was upset about the change.
"This is part of our religion, and we're going to stand our ground," Bee said.
Spending the afternoon with her children at International Plaza was not Sonya Henneke's original plan. The 37-year-old Riverview mother wanted her sons to go to school on Friday and observe Easter on Sunday.
Then she received an automated phone call from the school Thursday night, warning of combined classes and administrators recruited to teach. Oh, and her bus runs were canceled.
"Why would I send my kids to school when basically it's just glorified babysitting?" she said.
Times staff writers Emily Nipps, Robbyn Mitchell, Amber Mobley and Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.