Though Acadiana and much of the South has been under a heat advisory in recent days, something else was sweeping Lafayette Thursday: excitement.

Thursday was the first day of school for more than 30,000 students in the parish’s public schools, and teachers and staff across the district were all smiles as they returned to campus for the new academic year.

For the teams at Dr. Raphael A. Baranco Elementary and Martial F. Billeaud Elementary, Thursday was about more than welcoming the more than 800 students attending their two schools. It was about coming together as a community of teachers, administrators, staff, families and students for the first time.

That fresh slate was the draw that inspired kindergarten teachers Katie Griffon and Melisa Landry to join the staff at Baranco. The two women enthusiastically welcomed students off school buses Thursday morning, tagging students with colored wristbands to help them learn their bus.

“I think Baranco Elementary is making history right now and to be part of that is inspiring and a tremendous honor,” Landry said. “We want to change this world one student at a time.”

Also at Baranco Elementary were a couple dozen of Dr. Baranco’s brothers from the Eta Gamma alumni chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Chapter president Earl Godfry said having the civic activist and community leader’s name on a school in the heart of the city’s main African American neighborhood is important to the community.

Baranco, who died in May 2018, was the first African American dentist in Lafayette and the first African American elected to the Lafayette Parish School Board. He served on the board for 18 years.

“As a kid growing up, I can remember when he first campaigned for the school board and became a school board member, so I was able to watch everything that he did and everything that he fought for,” Godfry said.

The chapter president said Baranco worked hard to get his brothers involved in school-oriented service and the promotion of education, and they plan to continue that mission. Godfry said the alumni chapter is adopting Baranco Elementary and they plan to host a special activity for students each month during the school year.

In Broussard at Martial F. Billeaud Elementary, teachers guided students down the building’s wide hallways as they familiarized them with bathrooms, exit doors and safety rules. Teachers cheerfully welcomed students as they helped begin breaking in the new building.

Principal Christy Hayes said it’s fulfilling finally welcoming families.

“I’m feeling over the moon. This has been eight months in the making for me. So, to wake up this morning and realize that all of this hard work over the past eight months is coming to fruition today, it was pretty overwhelming in a positive way,” she said.

Some construction is still underway in auxiliary spaces and the school’s pre-K wing, but district chief administrative officer Jennifer Gardner said all essential spaces like bathrooms, the cafeteria, hallways and classrooms are complete and safe.

She said the anticipated completion date for the pre-K wing is November. Because the school isn’t at capacity, the pre-K students can be comfortably housed in other areas, she said.

The library, which is still under construction, will rotate between teachers’ classrooms. Hayes said “the kids won’t be missing out on anything” as work continues.

“We’re just going to go on as normal and when we get a new area opened, we’ll celebrate it and make changes,” she said.

The district’s youngest students will return to school next week. Pre-K and kindergarten students are currently completing screening tests and will return to class in tiers next week, with female students starting Tuesday and male students Wednesday before all the students report Thursday.

LPSS early childhood director Christine Duay said the divided reporting days help teachers determine students’ individual needs and establish relationships in a calmer setting.

Paul Breaux Middle students are following a similar setup, except divided by grade level. Sixth graders started Thursday, seventh graders report Friday and eight graders begin Monday. All middle school classes will report together for the first time Tuesday.

Principal Katherine Rayburn said in a statement the change allows “all of us to begin building positive relationships with students” and the children “will have more one on one attention, guidance, and help” on their assigned first day.

Lafayette Parish school changes: What you need to know before the first day

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com