The Camden school board is missing a perfect opportunity to give students a civics lesson when Barack Obama is sworn in as the country's first black president.

Last week, the board declared Inauguration Day a holiday and voted to close South Jersey's largest school system on Jan. 20. Camden has a largely minority student population of nearly 16,000 and more than 3,000 employees.

Board members fear that droves of teachers, support staff and students will take off to watch or attend the inauguration events, and the district may be unable to find enough substitutes. Opponents, including longtime school board member Jose E. Delgado, argue that schools should remain open. He's right.

Instead of reading about history, students can watch it take place. Classes can easily be planned around the inauguration for all grade levels. Televisions can be brought into the classrooms or an auditorium to watch the events.

Besides, Camden's students need every available learning moment. The district has an abysmal 50 percent dropout rate. Many students who do graduate are unable to meet basic math and language standards.

Many schools in Washington, Maryland and Virginia are closing on Inauguration Day because of logistical and staffing concerns. Their proximity to the festivities makes it more likely that those teachers and students will actually attend the swearing-in ceremony.

But outside of Washington, most other schools will be open, leaving Camden out of step with the majority of educators in the country.

Even Chicago - beaming with pride at sending its junior senator to the White House - has no plans to close its schools. Neither does the Christina school system, the largest district in Delaware, home to Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman is trying to determine "the best educational opportunity" for the city's 210,000 public school youngsters. One hopes that means incorporating the inauguration into the classroom.

That's what New York City plans to do. "It's a great opportunity for students to learn more about our electoral process," says spokeswoman Margie Fineberg.

In 1995, Camden became the first school district to close for the Million Man March, which drew many African Americans to Washington. Delgado opposed that decision, too, saying it would set a bad precedent. He was right then, too. This time, Camden is poised to give students and teachers a four-day weekend, since schools are already closed the day before for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. That puts an unfair burden on working parents to arrange day care.

The board should reconsider and keep schools open in the best interest of students. If not, Gov. Corzine should use his veto authority to overturn the closing.

When Obama becomes the country's 44th president, it should be a proud moment for all Americans, and not an excuse to skip school or take off from work. Camden's students would be best-served by learning history as it unfolds.