Schools note high absences, blame 'the purple fever'

As tens of thousands of Maryland families reveled in purple pride at M&T Bank Stadium on Tuesday, one mile away, the mood at Digital Harbor High School was blue.

Students and staff questioned the Baltimore school system's decision not to amend school schedules or allow them to attend the parade celebrating the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl win against the San Francisco 49ers.

"We are in a city that our kids are not always proud of," said Patrice LaHair, an English teacher at Digital Harbor. "This is a chance for them to be proud. The leaders of the city are making a parade for people from all over but excluding the most devoted fans — the dedicated students and teachers in Baltimore City."

School systems across the region reported unusually high absences among students Tuesday.

Baltimore County school officials said they "expected a full recovery from purple fever Wednesday" after they saw a sharp increase in the number of schools that noted "excessive absences," meaning their rates were double the norm.

Charlie Herndon, spokesman for the system, said that typically two to three schools per day experience such a rate. On Tuesday, the number jumped to 117.

City schools said its attendance rate Tuesday was 79.4 percent; last year on the 99th day of the school year, the rate was 90.1 percent, according to preliminary data released Wednesday.

Football towns in other states have adjusted schedules to allow their youngest fans to celebrate world champions. In 2011, Green Bay's schools closed early the following Monday to allow students to welcome the Packers home, and Pittsburgh's public schools opened two hours late after the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2006, according to published reports.

But the decision to keep schools open is not unprecedented in Baltimore. When the Ravens won the 2001 Super Bowl, the district's administration said the rain-soaked parade day would be "business as usual." When the Orioles won the World Series in 1983, the students who attended were those who proudly cut class.

Joshua Green of Garrison Middle School was one of those students Tuesday.

"I was mad but I wasn't really tripping because my mother was bringing us down here," Green said. "With everything going on in the city today and all the traffic, schools should have been let out. It's not fair, because it's the city team. It should be a city parade, our parade."

Some city residents agreed with the tradition of keeping schools in session.

David Robbins, who taught in the city for 10 years before moving to education technology consulting, said the city could have held the parade over the weekend so students could attend.

"If we were really concerned about education in our city, we would have taken a step back and said, 'The school day is really important, so maybe we should wait four days,'" Robbins said. "We have kids who really look up to these players, who don't understand why they can't be there. These guys make beaucoup bucks. I'm sure hanging around a couple of extra days wouldn't hurt anybody."

City government officials did not respond to a request for comment about why the parade was scheduled on a weekday.

City school officials said in a statement that while they were proud of the Ravens, the team's performance perfectly illustrated the reason schools remained open.

"They got to be the best team in football through strong commitment, hard work and everyday practice," the statement said. "We honor their Super Bowl victory by making sure we embody and teach, and our students learn these same lessons every day."

"I understand that education is very important, but we pay our money to buy tickets to attend games and buy accessories," Monica Redmond, a 10th-grader at Digital Harbor, wrote from school. "If Maryland politicians are able to leave early to attend, why can't we? I wish we were able to participate in this historical event."

Several parents said they wouldn't want their children to miss the celebration of a lifetime.

"I think today should be an excused absence — for bird flu," said April Hebron of Lansdowne, who had nabbed a prime seat at the stadium to watch the show with her family, including her 12-year-old Baltimore County student, Samantha.