With tears and smiles, sleepy heads and new shoes, a projected 103,000 Pinellas County students waved goodbye to summer break Monday morning and returned to school.
About 32,000 boarded school buses, some before the sun came up.
"It is going very smoothly, knock on wood," said T. Mark Hagewood, manager of transportation for the district, who himself was up at 4 a.m. to greet some of the 502 drivers headed out to gather the county's children.
With Pinellas County's history of school transportation problems, school district officials bulked up communications resources for the first day of school, staffing a 16-person call center that will be in full force for about the first six weeks that class is in session.
"Around October, things kind of get into a groove," Hagewood said. After that, about six people work the phones on a regular basis.
Officials also went out to some of the busiest bus stops — in large subdivisions and in mobile home parks — to help manage crowds and ensure that the right students boarded the right buses. Hagewood reported one minor bus breakdown.
Otherwise, officials said, the day went without any major mishaps.
John Stewart, superintendent of schools, sent out a video message to teachers, asking them on the first day of school to talk and think about the phrase "we make a difference.'' He also asked them to focus on student achievement, safe classrooms, good community relations and employee morale.
"Don't let something that's happening to someone else or happening at the state level or what's happening at the district level affect you in your classroom and what you are doing with your students," he said. "I know that you love your students and you embrace what you do with the full passion of someone who wants to make a difference."
His words of encouragement come as teachers open a second school year without a fully negotiated contract for their salaries or benefits.
Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said Monday morning that salary negotiations with the school district have "improved significantly." If all goes well, an agreement could be in place by Thursday, he said.
The district and union leaders have an all-day session scheduled that day. They already have come to an agreement on a new health insurance plan, which will go into effect for 2013, he said. The plan will have multiple options for employees.