DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County schools welcomed back their students Friday, a little earlier than some of their neighboring districts.

School zone lights flashed for the first time in months. Excited children and parents ran from their cars with backpacks and lunch boxes in hand to their first class. Teachers stood outside their classrooms and welcomed new students.

Some kids hung on tight to the legs of their parents with tears in their eyes, reluctant to let go. Others ran to find their friends while moms and dads took photos.

“It’s not popular, but it has its benefits,” Darlene Paul, principal of West DeFuniak Elementary School, said of starting the school year Friday.

Paul said starting late in the week, as opposed to a Monday, helps wean students into the new schedule, especially kindergartners who aren’t accustomed to school. It also gives time for the teachers to get to know the students, the students to get to know one another, and to discuss classroom rules.

Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties start school Monday.