At Turner Elementary School on Stanton Road SE, the principal sent home her two kindergarten classes yesterday because she had no teachers to watch over them. Parents were taking care of the school's three first-grade classes.

At nearby Washington Highland Elementary, the fifth graders had class all day in the gymnasium with the physical education teacher since the school does not yet have a fifth-grade teacher.

Such was life for some of the 97,900 District of Columbia public school students on the first day of classes as many schools still were waiting for as many as six teachers to arrive.

"It's chaos," said William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union. "I know of one junior high school (Miller) that on the first day of school did not yet have a schedule" of which teachers would be teaching what classes. The unprecedented layoff of 70 teachers during the summer and the unexpected retirement of 175 more teachers in the last week has caused several schools -- particularly elementaries -- to be short of teachers. So yesterday some principals assigned parents to be "educational aides," while music, art and gym teachers and reading and math specialists watched over other classrooms where no regular teachers have been assigned.

Despite the teacher shortage, officials said the first day of classes generally ran smoothly at a number of schools. "It was much better than we expected, said Vice Superintendent Elizabeth Yancey.

Principals at several schools also reported that attendance, even for opening day, was particularly good, although no precise statistics were available.

At schools where there was a teacher shortage, principals were frustrated.

"I do not have any kindergarten teacher and one fifth grade teacher." Like zero," said an irate Geraldine Coleman, principal at Turner Elementary."I'm also missing one third grade teacher, one fourth grade teacher or any first grade teachers.

Coleman, who also answered telephones at the school because she does not yet have a secretary, said she decided to suspend kindergarten classes until Monday because "I just ran out of bodies to hold the classes." She said that Supt. Vincent E. Reed has promised she would get the needed teachers by Monday.

Parents who work as educational aides at Turner were conducting most of the teacherless classes yesterday. One reading teacher who had been laid off, Patricia Acty Newby, returned to Turner to volunteer to staff one of the classrooms without a teacher.

"I just felt dedicated to Turner and I knew Mrs. Coleman would need help," Newby said.

In some schools there are teachers who are slated to work only another two weeks or month before they are laid off. These are teachers who received their layoff notices less than a week ago, and legally, they are entitled to an additional month of work.

"It's very frustrating. I'm in limbo. I don't know whether to go out and look for another job," said Linda Blackman, a fourth grade teacher at Washington Highland with nine years' experience who is scheduled to work only until Sept. 30.

She added that it also will be difficult for her to start the pupils on their fourth grade academic program since she will only be there for a month.

"I could start them off with basic things like handwriting and simple spelling assignments. As for reading and math, they would have to break down into small groups. . . . I hesitate to give them work on their [individual] levels because I won't be able to continue with it," she said.

School personnel officials said they did not know exactly how many teachers, like Blackman, will be working on a short term basis. Nor have they figured out how many schools still lack teachers.

Donna Stringer, administrative assistant in the personnel office, said school officials are working to reinstate about 200 of the 740 teachers who were laid off this season.

Once these teachers start to work -- probably by next week at the latest -- the teacher shortage should be solved, Stringer said.

Despite the problems, several principals reported a number of bright spots in the opening day.

The first day's lunch period at Terrell Elementary on Wheeler Road SE was "just beau-ti-ful," said principal Shirley Terrell.

She attributed the successful lunch period to a new set of cafeteria rules: students shall not use their meatballs for marbles; as some did last year; they are not to flick their lima beans at one another; and they are not to use their straws to create a mountain of bubbles over their milk cartons.

At McGogney Elementary, just down the street from Terrell, where all the teachers were present for the first day, students already were working on review lessons and teachers were testing them on some skills.

At Washington Highland, parents pitched in with the registering and transferring of students. By 9:30 -- a half hour after school started -- most parents who came to the school with a problem had been helped.

At times, the principal's office at Washington Highland seemed more like a hospital waiting room. There was the child who came to school on crutches and couldn't get around, and the boys and girls who suddenly developed stomach aches upon walking into a classroom. The baby brothers and sisters of Highland students crawled around the floor as their parents worked out a problem with principal Shirley Mitchell.

At the Friendship Educational Center, on Livingston Road SE, students began clustering outside the school at 8 a.m., even though classes did not begin until 9. When the doors finally opened at 8:55, students in fresh jeans and squeakly-new sneakers made a dash for their new classrooms.

The same enthusiasm was repeated throughout the city. "I was glad to come back to school," said Nicole Gould, an 8-year-old fourth grader at Takoma Elementary in Upper Northwest. "The summer was bad. You couldn't go outside because it was so hot."