TAMPA — Hillsborough schools had a hectic but mostly trouble-free start to the school year Monday, despite widespread confusion over bus route changes.
The day began with a barrage of calls to the transportation command center from anxious parents still trying to determine their child's new bus stop and pick-up times. Officials said they handled more than 2,000 calls over the weekend, but concede hundreds of parents gave up before getting through.
The day ended with the promise of a morning to sleep in. Schools are closed today, courtesy of Tropical Storm Fay. No decision has been made about whether they will reopen Wednesday.
The storm threat may have affected student attendance. About 173,000 students showed up for the first day of school — roughly 1,400 fewer than last year.
But superintendent MaryEllen Elia liked what she saw on a whirlwind tour of the district's three new schools, plus three schools that need improvement this year to prevent harsh consequences from kicking in.
"Students were in their class and teachers were teaching and it seemed like everything was going well," she said.
At the day's end, she felt transportation issues were under control.
"It always happens that we have some issues," Elia said, citing late buses and missed pick-ups. "We believe we're certainly getting things addressed."
As always, the first day was filled with nerves and excitement, with uncertain routines giving way to fresh starts, and smiles arriving to chase away tears.
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Alonso High School sophomore Nicole Rivera, 15, arrived at the corner of Countryway Boulevard and Northumberland Drive about 6:25 a.m. Monday. Within 10 or 15 minutes, five more classmates joined her.
The corner was the site of their bus stop last year, but no one knew what time to expect the bus. As the minutes ticked by, Nicole and her friends got restless.
"If it doesn't come at 7, I'm going back home to sleep because I woke up at 4 in the morning," she said.
"I'm thinking it's bad," agreed Alonso High senior Leonard Kapriyelov, 17. "It's not good."
At 6:56 a.m., Nicole called for a ride from her boyfriend. A minute later, she called her father.
"We are so not going to make it," said sophomore Meghan Pryce, 15.
At 7 a.m., the street lights along Countryway Boulevard went off. A minute later, Nicole called her boyfriend back.
"Hey, are you on your way? she asked. "No, it hasn't come yet." She hung up. "He's on his way!"
Parent Cheryl Atenza, 41, arrived with some bad news. Her daughter, an Alonso student, said the bus stop was moved.
But she wasn't sure. "We didn't get any kind of notification," she said.
With that, the Alonso group split in two, with kids heading off in different directions looking for another ride.
• • •
Debbie Hartley walked behind her grandchildren and daughter.
"Keep walking with Mommy and then turn around and I'll take your picture," she called out with a camera to her face.
A few steps ahead, granddaughter Rosie Parrish, 4, held her mom's hand, lumbering along with a big, pink backpack stuffed with crayons, hand sanitizer and her favorite "blankie."
"Are we going to the boo-hoo breakfast, because Grandma's going to boo-hoo," Hartley said.
This was Rosie's first day of pre-kindergarten at Cimino Elementary School in Valrico. She is the last of Hartley's seven grandchildren to start school, so while Rosie excitedly pulled her mom along to keep up with her two older brothers, Hartley wondered how she was going to get through the rest of the day.
Inside the cafeteria, Rosie and her brothers ate a quick cereal breakfast. Then it was time to hurry off to class.
They dropped off her two brothers, David and Daniel, at their classrooms. Rosie hugged and kissed them goodbye.
Then it was her turn.
"It's this one, Mom," Rosie said, heading for Ms. Priola's class.
Inside, children were sitting at tables coloring on paper flowers with markers. Parents circled with cameras.
Rosie found her seat and intently colored her flower.
"Bye, baby girl," Parrish called. "Bye, Rosie Lee," Hartley said, as both women backed out of the classroom. Rosie waved with her marker in hand but kept her eyes on her flower.
When the door closed, the two women peered through the glass for another look.
• • •
At Seminole Heights Elementary, Daryle Floyd was excited about the renovations to his school and looking forward to the new cafeteria. But some of his old friends weren't in his fourth-grade class.
"When they're in a different classroom it's like they're in a different world," he said. "You don't even know if they go to school here anymore."
Four new students were in Daryle's class.
"All girls," he said, looking a little disappointed.
At least he doesn't have to share the cafeteria with the kindergarteners, who sat down late in the morning Monday to their first lunch as students.
Housed in the school's multipurpose room — nicknamed the concession stand — they lightly jostled and quietly talked, showing off the contents of their lunches as teachers walked the aisles behind them.
It was Hannah Alexander's first day of school. She said she "sitted down nicely" and "Was good at school."
She picked out her outfit the night before and slept with what she called "magical ready confetti" under her pillow, which she was told helps kids go to sleep quickly before a big day.
The school handed out boo-hoo bags full of goodies to parents in need of something to calm their nerves. Hannah's mother, Lianna Alexander, a reading coach, said she didn't need the bag.
But Sunday night, she confessed, was a different story.
Times staff writers Saundra Amrhein and Joshua Neiderer contributed to this report.