TAMPA — Three Hillsborough County schools, closed since Monday amid the H1N1 flu scare, had lower than average attendance Thursday as students returned to classes, school officials said.
Freedom High School and Liberty Middle School in New Tampa and Woodrow Wilson Middle School in South Tampa were scheduled to be closed all week for cleaning but reopened sooner when the threat of a severe spread of the virus never materialized.
Freedom High saw the biggest absentee rate at 16 percent. At both Liberty and Wilson, 11 percent of the students failed to show. Freedom principal Chris Farkas was encouraged by the numbers.
"Based on what the expectation was, which was they were going to be out all week, and a number of kids went on vacation, I'm not disappointed," Farkas said.
No parents expressed any fears to him about their child returning to school prematurely, Farkas added.
A 15-year-old girl who attends Freedom and an 11-year-old boy who goes to Wilson had probable infections. The closure affected Liberty because it shares a cafeteria with Freedom.
Earlier this week, custodial workers at the schools were trained by experts on disinfecting techniques. They donned masks and gloves and used powerful cleaning agents to scrub the schools down.
"It was a normal day. The school didn't smell of cleaning materials. It was business as usual," Farkas said. "Kids went to class. There was nothing too exciting."
Freedom High junior Jess Baaske said a group of kids was trying to start a trend of wearing particulate masks to school, but it didn't catch on. She saw a handful wearing them and at least one wearing a gas mask.
Other than catching up on missed assignments, she described the day as ordinary.
"School was kind of hectic because we had to catch up and stuff since everything got pushed back," she said.
Many, like Jess, spent their days off hanging out with friends. She went to the mall on Monday, a friend's river house on Tuesday and had plans for Thursday.
"I was bummed," she said of learning that school would resume earlier than expected. "I was supposed to go to the beach, and I had to cancel those plans."
Maria Gutierrez happily sent her kids off to school Thursday morning. Two of Gutierrez's boys attend Freedom, another goes to Liberty.
"I feel great," Gutierrez said. "I didn't want them to miss anymore school than they had to."
Philippe Coriou, whose daughter Aicha resumed her sixth-grade classes at Wilson today, said he liked the fact that school officials were proactive.
"When there is a doubt about something, my idea is, make sure everything's okay," he said. "They have to be very careful … to prevent things from happening."
Aicha got the chance to relax at her condominium complex's pool and finish off some math homework. Still, he said, she was excited to be back in class.
"She would prefer to be at school," he said. "This school is a paradise for her."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.