This year, the first day of school in Miami-Dade revolved around the solar eclipse.
Students at George Washington Carver Middle School in Coral Gables went outside armed with protective glasses during their afternoon science classes. Students at Booker T. Washington Senior High in Overtown looked through telescopes and held eclipse glasses up to their cellphones to Snapchat the cosmic event. And at schools all across the county, teachers and students buzzed with excitement.
“We were talking about it, what time it started and whether we needed glasses,” said senior Genesis Guardado, 17, who viewed the eclipse on the lawn in front of Booker T. High.
“I was in music class and we even watched a video about it there,” said Booker T. 11th-grader Daniel Richardson.
Dora Pilz’s sixth grade science class at Carver Middle School also spent the day learning about astronomy, but when the students looked at the eclipse, they saw something closer to home.
“Whoa! It looks like Pac-Man!” one student shouted.
The event eclipsed the usual first-day jitters, the excitement of walking into brand new or renovated schools, and even a visit from the Miami Heat.
At Jesse J. McCrary, Jr. Elementary in the Little River area, Miami Heat players, Burnie the mascot and Heat dancers greeted students at the entrance with free school supplies.
“I’m feeling happy that I get to learn new things,” said 9-year-old Dahaina, who was looking for her class assignment on a list posted in the school courtyard.
But some of the parents dropping off their kids were less enthusiastic.
“Melancholic,” said mother Miriam Santos in Spanish when asked how she felt after leaving her kindergartner in his new class. “I’m used to being with him all day.” The first day of school, for her, would seem “never-ending,” she said.
By 9:30 a.m., the kids at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Overtown were fully immersed in their first lessons. The new $9.7 million school building, funded by a school improvement bond, includes a music room that opens into the cafeteria for lunch-time concerts, gleaming classrooms and a brightly lit media room with rows of computers.
The new building had attracted more students than expected. Thirty-six kindergartners squeezed into one room as Principal Yolanda Ellis got to work finding another teacher so she could split the class in two.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said other principals at new or renovated schools also reported surges in enrollment. Over the past few weeks, 70 new students enrolled at Hialeah High, which got a new gym and a new courtyard this year.
Bunche Park Elementary in Miami Gardens got a new school building, and Dr. Toni Bilbao Preparatory Academy in Doral opened its doors for the first time. Several other schools saw major renovations.
As a growing number of Miami-Dade students leave the traditional public system for charter schools, district officials are hopeful the new facilities will attract more families.
“Build it and they will come,” Carvalho said.
Overall, Carvalho said the first day of school went smoothly, with most buses running on time. The district registered a higher than usual number of early pick-ups and absences — likely because of the eclipse — but Carvalho said school officials did not yet know the exact number. The first-day absences will not be counted, Carvalho said, because the district’s policy is to start counting absences after a student begins attending school.
“Now it’s about making what was a great year last year an even better one this year,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, police reported that a private school van had crashed in Southwest Miami-Dade. Six children were transported to the hospital for minor injuries. It was not immediately clear which school the children attended.
In Broward County, school officials said the eclipse had also likely contributed to a higher than usual number of absences. As of Monday afternoon, Broward did not yet know how many students had skipped class. The district discouraged schools from letting students watch the eclipse outside because of safety concerns, but told parents that if they kept their kids at home it would count as an excused absence.
“Things went very well” overall, said Broward Schools spokeswoman Nadine Drew. “As far as I know, the buses were on schedule and everybody got where they were supposed to be.”
For the kids, however, the only thing that mattered was the eclipse. As Booker T. High senior Guardado put it: “It’s lit. Literally.”
Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.