Alyah Santamaria and Ally Ridenour, fifth graders and safety patrollers at Braden River Elementary School, stood beside the welcome back sign posted in front of the school with big smiles on their faces Aug. 10.
Santamaria and Ridenour, who have been best friends since they met in kindergarten at Braden River Elementary, were reunited and excited to be the big kids on campus as the school year started for the School District of Manatee County.
"I'm not looking forward to leaving (the school) because I love it so much," Ridenour said. "I'm excited to learn with my new teacher."
Schools across East County were bustling with students and parents heading to their new classrooms.
While the first day of school was a happy and exciting occasion for some, it was bittersweet for others.
"I'm stressed," said Nicole Schmitz, who was walking her Braden River Elementary School kindergartner Alexander Ayende Schmitz to class. "I'm emotional because he's not a baby anymore."
Ayende Schmitz smiled as his mom took a photo of him.
"My mom is going to cry because I'm growing so big," Ayende Schmitz said.
Ashley Rainer dropped off her son, Clayton Rainer, for his first day of kindergarten at Tara Elementary School.
"He was fine," Rainer said. "I was not."
Daiana Mihai, the mother of Braden River Elementary kindergartner Elyssa Mihai and first grader Ayden Mihai, said she's glad her children won't have to wear a mask this year due to the district's optional mask policy.
"They're normal kids again," Daiana Mihai said. "This is (Elyssa Mihai's) first year of school, so I'm glad it's going to be a good experience."
Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, was pleased to see parents taking advantage of the choice of whether to send their children to school with masks and reiterated that the health and safety of students and employees is a top priority.
"Overall parents and children were excited to be back in school," said Saunders, who visited Oneco Elementary School, Carlos E. Haile Middle School and Manatee High School on the first day of school. "There's nothing like the first day. I'm hopeful for what the school year brings."