The holiday that Baltimore County kids were supposed to have spent in school turned out to be the day that tens of thousands of them played hooky.
Memorial Day 1996 -- made into a school day to recoup time lost during the repeated snowstorms during the winter -- drew fewer than half of the county's 101,735 students yesterday, school officials estimated. Baltimore County was the only school system in the region open for Memorial Day.
Family vacations kept many students at home. In other cases, children simply stayed home. A few even braved the rain to go fishing.
And there were the malls.
"There's been kids in here all day," said Don Shope, a salesman at Sam Goody records in the Golden Ring Mall in Essex. "The schools are open? I thought they were off today."
On a bench nearby, seventh-grader Randy Brown and sixth-grader Lee McAlister awaited a matinee. They normally attend Parkville Middle School. But last week, they said, they hatched a plan: Lee told her parents that Randy wasn't going to school while Randy told her parents that Lee wasn't going to school. And what a Memorial Day it was: Two tickets for "Flipper," please.
"I think you should have school off," Lee said.
Schools officials said they had little choice.
The snowstorms forced them to cancel 11 days. And by law, they were required to make most of those days up. Officials already have pushed the school year an extra week into the summer -- and parents and teachers didn't want to push it any further. Nor did they like a proposal to add 15 minutes to each school day.
"We decided that perhaps Memorial Day was the least disruptive," said Donald I. Mohler, schools spokesman. "We continued to explore other avenues up until about two weeks ago. We did not want to open school on a holiday, but we are required to have students in school for a certain amount of time. We had no choice in that."
To be sure, thousands of students did go to school -- many not wanting to ruin their perfect attendance records. Mohler estimated that 45 percent to 50 percent of the sys-tem's students went to school.
But in schools throughout the county, it didn't seem that way.
Empty desks abounded. Halls were still. Cafeteria workers sat idle. And 700 bus drivers -- who unlike the teachers were being paid at double-time-and-a-half -- rode around in perhaps the quietest school buses in the history of American education.
Teachers made do. One delivered a Statue of Liberty reading. Another assigned his class the task of determining what percentage of students was not there.
At Perry Hall High School, where about 534 of 1,365 students showed up, 11th-grader Cory Marshall enjoyed one-on-one instructions in the Pythagorean theorem from Marjorie Barkley.
"What's c-squared, and b-squared, and all that stuff?" Cory asked.
He was planning on staying at school all day. Dozens of his colleagues, though, were heading for the exits.
"They're dropping like flies," Jackie Lamp said from behind the front counter of Perry Hall's office. "Lots of kids are going to the phones and trying to bail out."
At Overlea High School, just 150 of more than 700 students showed up, said Principal Norm Smith. "Yeah, I did expect it," Smith said. "This is traditionally a family day."
Down the hall, Michelle Greenbaum looked out over her empty honors geometry classroom. She has 14 students, none of whom showed up at Room 201 for the midafternoon class.
"I'm kind of surprised," said Greenbaum, who has been a teacher for 23 years. "It's very unfair to the the teachers who have to work. It's a family day, and we would like to be with our families."
But Ray E. Suarez, president of the county's teachers union, said the school system couldn't win. "You do what you can," Suarez said. "Given an act of God and given state regulations, here we are."
At Perry Hall Middle School, only 25 percent of the 1,380 students came to school, said Principal Rick Archambault. Students listened to Michael Williams, an expert on the Civil War, discuss the origins and importance of Memorial Day.
And sixth-grader Jen Winberry said Memorial Day warranted a day off. "It's bad. It's bad," she said. "All these people died, and we just shouldn't be here."
Some American Legion members agreed.
"We don't think too much of it, I'll tell you that," said George Laird, a Korean War veteran from Post 130, serving Overlea and Perry Hall. "It doesn't seem proper."
At Post 148 in Essex, Clancy Gury of Timonium wasn't quite as upset, but added: "I personally can't see the point. They go 180 days now. If they only went 175 days a year, would it make them all idiots?"
Memorial Day memories also were not lost on parents.
Brian Cooper let his son, Brian Jr., stay at Mars Estates Elementary school just long enough to maintain his perfect attendance. "I let him go for a couple of hours and then I yanked him out of there," Cooper said.
He preferred that the day be one for family and for remembrance of veterans like Brian Jr.'s great-grandfather, who fought in Germany in World War II.
The younger Brian, upon his return, also found time to go fishing with his twin sister, Brittney. In all, 467 students out of 685 were absent from Mars Estates. And like students throughout the county who missed school, they are supposed to show up today with a written explanation, said school officials. But the notes likely will not be required.
"We'll see what happens," said schools spokeswoman Marjorie Hampson. "I'm sure a lot of them will go by the wayside."
Pub Date: 5/28/96