Drivers beware: More students walking to and from school this year

Students in Hillsborough County Schools embark on a new school year Thursday and, while the feeling for the majority of families is a combination of excitement and anxiousness, some parents are facing uncertainty.

Tanya Arja, a district spokesperson, said among the important parts of the first day back to school is making sure students safely travel there and back home.

"We ask our drivers and everbody out there just to make sure they slow down around our schools and in the neighborhoods," she said. "We're going to have a lot of students that will be walking."

There will be a lot more students walking or riding bikes to school this year than in previous years;  the district ended courtesy busing for roughly 7,500 middle and high school students who live within two miles of their schools.

This decision came after a consultant was hired by the school board to identify ways to trim the

Some parents, however, have concerns on the eve of the new school year.

"It's not that I'm mad, it's just that they should have done their homework more. They should have done some more safety precautions into place," said Chris Sigliano whose kids go to school in the  Fish Hawk area. "It's not a safe route. Down Litha Pinecrest [Road], it's not safe. You have semi trucks coming down the roads. It's just not a good situation for anybody."

The district decided which routes to end based on state guidelines. Courtesy busing is still available for elementary school students.

"That's about three million dollars in savings that now will be directed back into the schools," Arja said. "We are following the state guidelines, which is what every district in the state of Florida  looks at when they are looking at courtesy busing."

Schools within the county have stepped up to widen other commute options for students. At Randall  Middle School in Lithia, for example, $15,000 has been spent to widen sidewalks around the building to allow more space for students who are walking and biking. The school has also added additional bike racks.

Meanwhile, teachers have been putting the finishing touches on classrooms throughout the county.

The district is short 135 teachers for traditional classrooms and 70 teachers for students with special needs, which is roughly the same as in 2016.

For the first time in years, however, the district is fully staffed with bus drivers. Arja is urging parents to be patient for the first two weeks; she expects some students to arrive home late, as school staffs take extra time making sure students are boarding the correct buses.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough County school buses made their annual test run. No difficulties were reported. Thursday is also the first day of school for Pinellas, Polk, Citrus, Manatee, and Highlands counties.