Tropical Storm Fay delayed the start of school, and it remains a dark force over North Florida.
But Bill Reese, a new math and geography teacher at Meadowlawn Middle School, sees a silver lining. The portable classroom that Reese will inhabit this year arrived a week ago, leaving little time to get it ready for the scheduled start of school Tuesday.
Fay bought him an extra day.
"If it hadn't been for that storm I would have been hurting today," Reese, 42, said Wednesday.
The third-year teacher has decorated the room with a jungle theme to align with a geography curriculum that will take his students through Asia and Africa.
Tiki lamps, a leopard-pattern rug and a cluster of ferns near the door set the mood. A sign says, "You're in the jungle, baby."
Reese comes to Meadowlawn from Riviera Middle — another theme for the new year.
The district closed Riviera and two other schools in June to address enrollment declines, meaning a number of schools were called on to accommodate new students and staff. More than 150 students and 16 teachers from Riviera moved to Meadowlawn, enlarging the school by about 20 percent.
The school ordered more portables and scrambled to find office space for everyone. But Meadowlawn principal Valencia Walker also wanted the Riviera crowd to feel welcome.
The school asked Reese to be the boys volleyball coach — not because he's a "sports guy," which he isn't — but because he was a familiar presence from Riviera.
"That blew me away," Reese said. "They said, 'We want you to be that figure, to be the face for the kids that they can latch on to and get involved.' I was like, 'Wow, that's really a great idea.' "
He said he saw a group of Riviera kids on campus early Wednesday, and they were happy to be there but a little nervous about being accepted.
Reese urged them to relax.
"They've made adjustments to make sure that we all fit here and that we have a sense of being like family," said Kathleen Prince, a teacher who spent 24 years at Riviera and took its closing hard. "So it's not the (Meadowlawn) Lancers and (Riviera) Raiders anymore. We're part of the Lancer family."
Dozens of parents crowded into Meadowlawn's office to handle last-minute registration details or get their children's schedules. About 100 kids without immunization records were sent to the cafeteria. And several buses were late, including one that hadn't shown by 11 a.m.
But such problems are common for a first day, and Walker said things seemed smooth overall. The same was said to be true across the district on the first day of the new "close-to-home" school system.
District spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said the Pinellas call center handled about 1,500 busing calls and that the average caller wait time was seven minutes, down two minutes from last year.
Half the calls were from families who had moved to within two miles of their school and no longer got a bus ride, Zahn said.
Of the 3,800 people who applied to change schools under the new "open enrollment" system, the district had accomodated about 2,000, Zahn said.
"We seem to have a very smooth opening this year," she said.
It didn't seem that way to some families still struggling with enrollment issues. Dennis Bodnar applied in July to move his three children to a different school yet was still in limbo Wednesday.
One child got into a new school, but it wasn't reflected on the district's new online reservation system. The other two were still waiting.
From 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Bodnar worked a system that seemed inefficient and confusing to him.
"They made everything work for me, but they really had it messed up," Bodnar said.
Back at Meadowlawn, Gabor Presser, 34, had a different set of concerns. His oldest child, Rebecca, 11, was going off to middle school.
"It's rough," he said. "She's growing fast. I'm excited for her but it's kind of a reality check."
Another parent, Valerie Williams-Hoeneisen, was dropping off her youngest child, Shelby, for her first day of middle school.
"It's quite frightening," she said. "It reinforces how precious they are and how short the time is we have with them."