1. The Education Gradebook

Many bay area students start the holiday early

Published Dec. 22, 2012

TAMPA — Maybe it was the Mayan calendar and maybe it was the Roman calendar.

Something, or a combination of somethings, kept more than a fifth of public school children in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties home on Friday.

The absentee rate in Pinellas on Friday was 24 percent. That's more than double what it has been for the last three years on the Friday before the winter holiday.

In Hillsborough, 20 percent of students missed school. That's up from 8 percent on the last day before winter break in 2011.

Officials can only speculate why.

In both counties, investigators spent much of the week chasing down rumors about expected trouble on Friday.

Some of the talk was in response to last week's mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

There was chatter among older students about the so-called Mayan apocalypse, an Internet phenomenon that foretold the end of the world on Friday.

"This is not a typical week," said Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for the Hillsborough schools. "It was probably all of the above."

And that's not all.

"Winter break comes much closer to Christmas this year," Hegarty said, noting families sometimes pull their children out of school early for out-of-town travel.

The absences did not come as a complete surprise. On Monday, when news of the Connecticut tragedy was fresh, the district began tracking absences and found they were a little high.

But attendance picked up over the course of the week, Hegarty said.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, seeking to reassure parents, issued a robo-call on Wednesday saying all of the rumors were unfounded and urging students to "act responsibly and maintain a focus on learning."

Year-to-year data was not available from Hernando and Pasco counties.

But Pasco Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd said he heard some high school students skipped school, having completed their final exams earlier.

"Typically attendance is down this day, having nothing to do with doomsday or the Mayan calendar," Gadd said.

Staff writers Lee Logan, Andrew Meacham and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813)226-3356 or