TAMPA — It's all about communication, whether it's about tomorrow's homework assignment, a bad flu going around, or kids fighting after school.
That was the theme Friday as Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia held her annual back-to-school news conference to usher in the new school year. Classes begin Tuesday in the 189,000-student district.
Elia had plenty of upbeat news to report: six new schools opening, new computer software to link schools and families, and 1,100 well-rehearsed school bus drivers who are ready to roll.
But two big problems from the last school year — the swine flu pandemic and a series of alleged locker room rapes at Walker Middle School — were also on Elia's agenda. There, too, communication has become the new byword.
Many students will likely catch the H1N1 virus due to the extent of its spread into the community, officials said earlier this week, warning of the possibility of 30 percent absence rates next month. "We do not anticipate closing schools for the swine flu," Elia said. "We also will not be sending home letters when a student has the flu."
On the bullying prevention front, Elia talked about new training for teachers and staff members, and cited a new Web site that will allow anonymous reporting of incidents.
"We're doing everything we can to encourage students to step forward," she said. "We want to get it where it begins, where students are initially having difficulties with each other."
Families in many schools can use new Edline software to check for students' grades and assignments. But the district will still send notes home the old-fashioned way via backpacks and back pockets for those without computers, Elia said.
And newly arrived military families can visit a page of their own on the district's Web site, where they'll find contact numbers and help getting settled.
"We have staff members assigned to give them personal service," she said. "It's the least we can do."