PARKLAND — Like any other first day of school, there were predawn traffic jams, winding drop-off lines and first-day jitters. About 271,000 students returned to class in Broward County on Wednesday, and 80,000 of them came by bus.
But this was unlike any other first day of school. On this day there was a school resource officer, armed security guard or police officer stationed on every campus, even elementary schools.
The first day of the 2018-19 school year came six months and a day after a former student turned gunman forever changed how Florida schools protect students. And at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, where 17 lives were lost and another 17 injured in the deadliest school shooting in Florida, a helicopter hovered above. Media camped out on the sidewalks. Therapy dogs greeted students who didn't bring their own canine companion.
Broward school district officials called it a different, bittersweet day.
"Yes, there's some anxiety there, and that's probably true generally in schools across Broward," said Superintendent Robert Runcie at an afternoon press conference. "I think that the students are happy to get back to their Eagle family."
At Stoneman Douglas, 3,354 students were counted, just 26 fewer than at last year's start. Its freshman class at 848 students is larger than its senior class. Seventeen out of 154 teachers were new, and two positions were still vacant.
Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco said educators at schools around the district shared some of that nervous energy.
"They said that today was filled with a lot of emotions coming into the school year," she said. "They came with some anxiety, they came with excitement. Today has been a very positive first day."
Throughout the district, Runcie said, it was a hectic day without any hiccups or concerns. Schools now had more stringent ID checks and stricter security protocols to follow.
The district did, however, have to ask the cities of Fort Lauderdale, Lauderhill and Hollywood to commit to staffing more police officers to cover about 50 schools left unfilled to comply with a new state mandate to put an armed guard or officer in every school.
Even though security staff was doubled at Stoneman Douglas and media still lingered in their path out the schoolhouse gate, students chatted about their schedules and fretted about their classes as they headed home.
"Last night I was kind of freaking out," said senior Arjay Hernandez, 17. "But there's going to be just as much security as the freaking White House."
He noticed a few changes in school. The new announcement signal sounded more mellow rather than like an alarm. He met up with an old therapist. The school has already scheduled its first emergency drill.
He expected fewer students and less media presence but found the opposite to be true in both cases.
He said some teachers didn't even talk about Feb. 14, like it never happened.
Across the street from the cameras, he said, "Everything was normal."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] and @Colleen_Wright.