THE FIRST DAY of school in Philadelphia is also the start of a grim new normal for the district's 137,000 students and their families.

Today, there are 24 fewer schools in the district, as part of a plan, it has been said, to reduce costs following a decline in the student population. The result is 9,000 students will attend 53 different schools than they would have attended last fall.

The district has come up with safe routes to every school, since so many students have shifted in the mass closures, said Karyn Lynch, chief of Student Support Services.

Principals were sent links to the maps, which can be found on the district website, to print out and give to parents who might not have access to the Internet, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Staffing, too, is a pressing issue. This year, schools with fewer than 600 students - that's about 60 percent of them - won't have a guidance counselor on staff. Instead, those schools will be assigned "roving counselors" who will be in charge of five or six schools.

Meanwhile, class sizes are skyrocketing - even though the upper limit under the teachers union contract is 33 kids in each classroom. Already, teachers and parents have complained over social media about class sizes reaching 44 students, even 48 in one case.

These are just a few examples of the new reality hitting Philadelphia's 218 traditional public schools. In the crisis that was widely publicized throughout the summer, the district has been struggling to fill a $304 million deficit. It laid off 3,859 employees in June and has asked for $180 million from the state and city, as well as $133 million in concessions from labor unions.

To date, the state has given an extra $2 million in funding, and the city borrowed $50 million - enough so that schools could open on time.

In addition, the district and its two unions, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, are still at the bargaining table discussing possible givebacks.

"Our folks will do everything they probably can to make it work for the kids," PFT vice president Arlene Kempin said last night. "We are still talking."

Not surprisingly, there are different views on the first day of school: District officials have high hopes, while parents and education advocates see only the "doom" in "doomsday budget."

Despite the crisis, work got done over the summer. About 11,500 work orders were filled, said Bi Vuong, director of the Strategy Delivery Unit - more than prior years. Improvements include a repurposed kitchen at Martin Luther King High School for its culinary program and a new TV studio at Bartram High School for its communication technology program.

The district could not provide the cost of the orders.

But no amount of progress could quell the panic of some concerned citizens last week as opening day loomed.

Helen Gym, a public-school parent and co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, called it "one of the most worrisome and chaotic school openings that we've seen in a long time."

Attorney Sonya Kerr, director of disability rights with the Public Interest Law Center, said she wrote to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. in March, telling him that if any schools were to be closed, he needed a plan to ensure that students with disabilities would not have problems transitioning to new schools.

"He wrote back, 'Everything is going to be fine.' Everything's not fine," Kerr said. Students don't know which school to attend, nor do they have transportation worked out, she said.

Kerr said she blames the state's Department of Education, which has a legal responsibility to special-education students and "is abdicating that responsibility. They are nowhere to be found."

She urged parents of children with disabilities to call her office or the state with any complaints. For students ages 6 to 21, parents may call the Department of Education at 800-879-2301. For those 5 years old and under, call Connect Early Intervention Service at 800-692-7288.

Parent Robin Roberts is undecided about whether to send her kids to school at C.W. Henry.

"Who's going to say that something happened in the bathroom if no one's in the hallway?," Roberts asked, during a press conference last week. "There aren't enough people to make sure that our kids are safe. . . . I would love my children to get a high quality education but this district has shown me that they don't care about these kids."

Last night, others showed they cared. Hundreds of parents, teachers and students gathered outside Gov. Corbett's Philadelphia office on Broad Street near Walnut at dusk, their faces aglow in candles and flushed with anger.

"Tom Corbett, you can't hide. We can see your greedy side!" the crowd chanted as they marched in tight circles on the sidewalk.

Teachers said the usual feelings they have before opening day, the nervous anticipation and excitement, were wiped out over a long, difficult summer.

"To be honest, I'm really scared to death," said Gail Kantor, 55, a teacher at Julia deBurgos School in West Kensington. "All of the excitement has been replaced with threats, greed, and uncertainties."

- Staff writer Jason Nark

contributed to this report