It was a mad scramble for many Camden parents yesterday when the city's 33 public schools had "emergency" closings at 12:45 p.m. due to a shortage of custodial staff.

"We had an inordinate number of people in key positions who did not come to work," district spokesman Bart Leff said, noting that the district was legally required to have at least one licensed janitor in each school.

Michael Cholo left his auto-body job to retrieve his two children at the Henry H. Davis School at 34th and Cramer Streets in East Camden.

"It's a pain in the neck," he said. "They should have told us earlier, like Friday."

In addition to most of the custodial staff, sources said that quite a few maintenance workers and some lunchroom workers were AWOL throughout the district. The three groups are represented by the Communications Workers of America, Local 1079, and have been without a contract for more than two years.

Also among the missing, said sources, were principals and other administrators, who are represented by a different union but are without a contract as well.

"It's our understanding that this was contract-related, or 'lack-of-contract'-related," said State Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci.

Community activist Lola Moore, a recent school candidate, said the Local 1079 workers had been upset about possibly having to pay a larger portion of their health-care costs.

Leroy Baylor, president of Local 1079, said he had heard about the absences. But, he said, "I don't know of any job action or anything like that."

Officials with the administrators' union could not be reached for comment.

Students were sent home with a note from district Superintendent B. LeFra Young stating that schools would reopen today.

The closings made for a chaotic day for many parents, who had to leave work early or make arrangements to pick up their children. Delayed openings also were reported at some schools where janitors were unavailable to open the doors.

At Davis, where acting principal Sharon Woodridge had made prior arrangements to be out of the office, crossing guard Rita Jarrett said she arrived at 7 a.m., but couldn't get into the building for a half hour.

"Some of the kids couldn't get their breakfast," Jarrett said. "Some of the kids went back home."

Vice Principal Marvin Gantt was at the school and said he planned to be there today.

"We're planning on a normal day of school. . . . Hopefully, a normal, full day," he said.