Hillsborough County schools opened smoothly Tuesday for more than 180,000 students, stirring increased traffic on the roads and mixed emotions in the classrooms.
Enrollment increased this year by about 670 students in kindergarten through high school, the school district said. Attendance numbers should rise by several thousand during the third week of school, officials said.
Beyond the usual trepidation about teachers and grades, the first day of school at Freedom High School brought some anxiety for students and parents.
Last week, an expelled 17-year-old was accused of plotting a bomb attack against the Tampa Palms school. At Jared Cano's home, police said they found ingredients to build pipe bombs, a manifesto, and a plot to kill even more people than the 13 massacred in 1999 at Columbine High.
The plan was thwarted due to an anonymous tip. Still, it was enough to rattle some students and their parents on Tuesday morning.
"There were some kids making smart remarks on the bus, like, 'Our school's gonna blow up,' " said 14-year-old Nia Slater, a freshman. "So, I'm a little nervous."
Her friend, 14-year-old Hanna Henderson, said, "Well, I feel safe because there are so many cops here."
The school had a large police presence, though most officers were directing traffic as drivers dropping off children began to pile up at the entrance.
First-day attendance at Freedom High was down by 166 from last year's opening day, schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. It was "hard to say" whether the decrease was directly related to the alleged bomb plan, she said, or factors such as typically low first-day numbers or a change in district population.
In Lithia, traffic snarls from an overturned tanker truck prevented buses from reaching some students heading to Barrington Middle, Cobbe said. The school district contacted families, who transported their children, but Cobbe said about 10 students could not get to school.
In general, "everything went very smoothly," Cobbe said.
Around the county, students expressed both excitement and dread at the new school year, greeting friends and bemoaning impending schoolwork.
It was a momentous day for 5-year-old Olivia Beckelheimer — so big that she took a bath and allowed her mother to braid her hair. Sporting a new look, she posed for silly pictures outside the family's bungalow in Seminole Heights.
"Then at the last minute, she got nervous," said her mother, Molly Beckelheimer.
Kindergarten teacher Amber Roberts offered calming words to Olivia and several other new students at MacFarlane Park Magnet School for International Studies on MacDill Avenue.
Roberts promised they would do fun things that Olivia could show her mother at the end of the day.
At the next table, Devan Sanka, 5, wanted to know what time his mother would pick him up.
"He's a little bit shy," said Rima Sanka.
One classroom over, Nicole Blake reviewed the day's agenda with her first-graders. She had "looped" with them from kindergarten to first grade, so they knew each other and were busy comparing lost teeth and added height.
At Buckhorn Elementary School in Valrico, they walked in with new backpacks and stomachs full of special breakfasts as principal Tamara Brooks gave her morning announcements with a hearty "Welcome!"
"I'm just happy my babies are back," she said.
In the courtyard, 7-year-old Abigail Cockerham posed in front of a tree while her parents snapped lots of photos. It's a first day of school ritual for the family.
"We hope that we learn lots of new stuff," mom Amy Saracino said of Abigail's first day of second grade, "and we don't get in trouble for talking."
Down the road at Mulrennan Middle, also in Valrico, principal Tim Ducker waved to parents in the dropoff line as their children hopped out of cars — often with barely a goodbye.
"It's a big change," he said about the kids starting middle school.
Aubrey Steigerwaldt, 11, knows exactly what her principal is talking about.
"Oh, gosh," the Valrico sixth-grader remembered thinking when she woke up at 7 a.m. "I don't know, like, anybody. I'm in a completely new place."
And the scariest part: No more sleeping in like she did in the summer, she said with a frown.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.