Swine flu worries and staffing shortages did nothing to dampen spirits -- or "welcome back" hugs and high-fives -- on Broward County's first day of school.
The day kicked off auspiciously at about 5 a.m. with what administrators said was a glitch-free start, when nearly 1,100 buses rumbled onto the roads to pick up more than 81,000 of the district's students and drop them off at more than 285 campuses.
The final bell, however, rang as about 40 teachers and Broward Teachers Union officials picketed Superintendent James Notter's end-of-day update at Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale, foreshadowing some of the challenges the district faces in the year ahead.
After two years of shrinking budgets there will be 101 fewer teachers, meaning some larger classes; no art and music classes in schools that had both; fewer supplies; and more tattered textbooks. And the union is demanding raises for teachers who began the year without a contract.
This district's budget this year is $3.6 billion, down from about $5 billion last year.
Despite the difficulties, "we are starting this year with enthusiasm," said School Board chairwoman Maureen Dinnen.
The weightiest issue at Heron Heights Elementary School in Parkland -- one of two brand-new elementary schools that opened on the first day of school -- appeared to be the tears of kindergarten and first-grade parents who lingered long after the school bell rang.
Marc Igreja, 5, wore a plastic rainbow-colored Hawaiian lei and an oversized blue backpack as he entered his kindergarten class. At home, his mother, Gabriela, took dozens of photos. Like many parents, she said she was taking the first day of school harder than the children.
First-grader Alex Blasi said he was excited about his first day at the new school, "because it's new."
And though schools and parents braced for a resurgence of the H1N1 flu as kids and teachers crowded together for the first time since last year's outbreak, teachers still accepted apples and gave hugs in return.
District officials said they have made arrangements for prevention and to deal with sick kids until their parents can pick them up. Sniffling, feverish students will be isolated. School surfaces will be cleaned regularly.
Schools were stocked with soap, paper towels and alcohol-based hand-sanitizer. Cartoon-like posters teaching kids to cough into their elbows or into tissues are taped to walls.
"The key with H1N1 is prevention," said Notter.
This week is also back to school time for South Florida's colleges and universities. Florida Atlantic University is beginning the year with newfound popularity. A record 12,800 freshman applied for 2,500 spots.
First-day enrollment at Broward schools, however, was up only slightly over last year, with 231,495 students counted. But the district is projecting 252,544 students at its 20-day count -- the figure they use to determine enrollment for the year. That would mean a drop of about 3, 200 students, and a fifth straight year of declines. The drop could mean less money from the state, scuttled construction projects and fewer high school electives.
It also means Broward must obtain state approval before building classroom additions, which Notter wants to do to relieve overcrowding at nine western Broward schools. The state already turned down the district's request to build a middle school to ease crowding.
District officials are trying to avoid a massive boundary change that could force kids throughout the district to move around. Nonetheless, the district is examining possible changes at a workshop Tuesday. Boundary changes occur every year as new schools open and some become overcrowded, but they always upset somebody.
There didn't appear to be any hard feelings, however, at Margate Middle School, which welcomed new students from Lyons Creek Middle in Coconut Creek after a contentious boundary change was approved earlier this year.
"They should be very happy," Principal Hudson Thomas said soon after Notter and two School Board members read the morning announcements. "We have great teachers. We want our kids to go to college."
Staff Writers Scott Travis, Rachel Hatzipanagos and Rafael Olmeda contributed to this report. Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4527.