WAYCROSS, Ga. – From the first-day-back photo ops to the brand-new backpacks, it was easy to feel the students' readiness as they headed to class at Memorial Drive Elementary in Waycross.
The school year will bring plenty of discovery for students like Talia.
"We have to learn about animals and learning how to add and subtract," she said.
Talia's mother, Samantha Atkins, was excited to bring her children to school. Thursday marked her son's first day of kindergarten.
"He's my baby," Atkins said. "It's the last one so I'm nervous. I know he'll be good. I love this school, this is our second year here. I know they're in good hands."
The new academic year for 6,100 students at Ware County's 11 schools also brings a new superintendent and a new school district police force.
Superintendent Bert Smith was the principal at Ware County High School. He shared the philosophy he has in mind for the new school year after he was sworn in as the superintendent.
Having worked in education for more than two decades, one of his main goals is to make sure students feel safe and make sure parents know their children are safe.
School district police
Before the new police force was launched, Smith said only the middle schools, high school and alternative school in the county had an officer assigned.
With the Ware County school system police department officially up and running, Smith said this means every school in Ware County will now have a school resource officer on campus.
Chief Danny Christmas was hired in May and has spent the summer hiring officers and outfitting them with police cars. The force will work alongside the city, county, state and federal agencies.
“That’s a trend that is happening. It’s unfortunate that we have to spend so much time on safety, but that is our number one priority," Smith said.
With more than 6,000 students starting off this year, Smith said having this extra layer of safety in place will make a big difference.
Addressing road conditions
For school leaders, one big issue they're looking to address is how severe storms continue to impact many rural roads. Many of those roads flood out and become impassible, forcing schools to close.
“The last few years, we’ve dealt with three hurricanes," Smith said. He remembers taking phone calls from parents who could not pull out of their own driveways because of the damage to the roads. It also impacted busing.
Lottie Tatum Road, Musket Trail and Brad Street were just a few of the problem roads.
Smith said a big meeting this September has been scheduled with the district, Emergency Management and other state agencies to address the problem.
For now, city and county leaders are working on the roads and infrastructure. Smith said the last thing anyone wants to do is cancel school because of the effects of weather. “We want to make sure each and every day -- we’ll assess, we don’t call off school at the drop of a hat. We’re going to make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe,” Smith added.