By Bill Kirk
---- — ANDOVER — It was a beautiful, sunny, spring day on Saturday. Perfect for yard work, going for a walk or sitting in the sun.
Or, for 1,135 Andover High School students, it was a great day to sit in a classroom.
“It wasn’t awful,” senior Kelsey Stevens, 18, said. “Since there weren’t as many students, teachers had to hold back on their lesson plans, so it was pretty relaxed.”
Plus, she said, “it was pajama day.”
Even though administrators and teachers did the best they could to make the day as palatable as possible, just 70 percent of the students showed up, a far cry from the usual 93 to 95 percent on a typical weekday, said high school Principal Chris Lord.
“I’m not particularly happy,” Lord said. “I expected more, but it wasn’t completely unexpected.”
He said there were 536 excused absences and 120 unexcused absences out of the 1,791 enrolled students. Several groups were out of town that day, including the choir group competing in the nationals in Chicago and the drama club at a competition in Framingham. There was also an Ultimate Frisbee tournament that members of the club team were allowed excused absences for.
Lord said administrators are still trying to track down what happened to the 120 students who appear to have had no excuse to be out of school for the day.
“We have investigative procedures in place for them,” he said.
The high school was forced to hold classes on Saturday due to a combination of events, including snow days, a gas leak and a number of religious holidays that put students and staff out of school.
Districts across the state are required to have 180 school days for students and 184 days for teachers, he said. All of the other schools in the district were able to meet the requirement without calling a Saturday session.
Kerry Costello, president of the Andover Education Association, said all the teachers showed up but that a lot of students were missing.
“Staff was here and ready to engage,” she said. “But from the classrooms I saw, I didn’t see many that were full.”
She said 70 percent was “better than I thought.” However, she said she hadn’t heard much feedback from teachers.
“Teachers knew attendance would be down, so they didn’t go too far with the curriculum,” she said.
A number of students were dismissed early for a variety of family activities, Lord said, something that’s expected on weekends.
He noted that next year, the school calendar starts on Aug. 26, the week before Labor Day, meaning school will end June 16, unless there are more snow days.
“Hopefully, this problem won’t come up again,” he said.
Costello agreed. “It was a hard week,” she said. “We had one day off and then we were back in school.”
She noted that the system was forced into holding classes on Saturday because state law prohibits holding classes after June 30. The early start next year, which was approved by the teachers union, should help avoid a similar problem for the 2013-2014 school year.
Meanwhile, she said, a group has formed to look at religious holidays in general.
“A lot of factors played into all of it,” she said.
Superintendent Marinel McGrath, who could not be reached for this story, spent the whole day Saturday at the high school.