This morning, Rebecca Schou will be immaculate and professional as she greets children and their parents for the first day of classes at Annapolis Elementary School. But there she was yesterday, the school principal, wearing sneakers and muddy garden gloves to yank weeds out of the brick sidewalk and stone wall in front of the building.

"We had so many other things to do until now, I told the guys, 'I'll take care of this,' " said Schou, shoving another bundle of overgrowth into a brown paper grocery bag. "I sure wouldn't want to go to a school and not see it look its best."

As the first group of Washington area students prepared to return to school today, principals, teachers and staff spent yesterday attending to a variety of last-minute fixes.

Classes start today for public school students in Prince George's, Howard, Anne Arundel, Calvert and Charles counties in Maryland; Loudoun County in Virginia; and the District. Montgomery County students return to school on Wednesday. Most Virginia counties start classes on Sept. 7.

For some school officials, yesterday was devoted to the little chores that they always save until the final day of vacation, such as organizing their desks. Others tended to more urgent clerical or cleanup tasks that had been pushed to the bitter end by an unusually frenetic summer of staff development and construction.

Several districts were scrambling until last week to fill a record number of job openings caused by a regionwide teacher shortage and a wave of retirements. Meanwhile, rising student populations prompted a flurry of additions and renovations in several districts, and the opening of new schools, including four in Loudoun and two in Prince George's.

The activity may have been busiest yesterday in Southeast Washington, where a three-month asbestos removal project at J. Hayden Johnson Junior High School is forcing students and teachers to relocate to the vacant Douglass Junior High six blocks away.

Since they learned of the move less than two weeks ago, Johnson school maintenance workers have been busy cleaning and polishing the old school. Teachers pitched in, helping to haul furniture up the stairwells in the elevator-less Douglass building, decorating classrooms and outfitting a computer lab.

"The building will look like we've been having school here all along," Johnson Principal Robert W. Gill said yesterday from his newly claimed offices at Douglass. "This is our home away from home."

At Lime Kiln Middle School in southern Howard County, secretary Harriet Spadin had an unusual task yesterday: keeping people out.

As one of several new schools in the region set to open for the first time today, Lime Kiln was besieged by teachers wanting to put the finishing touches on classrooms they had already spent weeks organizing and by parents eager to give their children a first peek at the building. But Spadin was standing firm, in defense of the building's harried crew of maintenance workers.

"The custodians said they really needed a day when no one else was in the building," she said. "The amount of trash to unpack everything new, just moving that around is astronomical," she said. Spadin herself, meanwhile, was trying to stock the faculty workroom with enough supplies.

At Sully Elementary School in Sterling, PTO volunteer Sara Branscome spent yesterday training the new front-office secretary how to operate the 24-hour hot line that parents are required to call to notify the school of their child's absence.

Otherwise, said secretary Lisa Duff, the building was largely silent and pristine, awaiting this morning's student invasion.

"The floors are waxed, the carpeting is in," she said. "We're ready for them."

CAPTION: Rafael Medel, left, and Aparecido Alves Machado put a fresh coat of paint on restroom stalls at Douglass Junior High. The school is quickly being prepared to house J. Hayden Johnson Junior High students displaced from their school.

CAPTION: "This is our home away from home," said Principal Robert W. Gill as he put letters on a welcome sign for Johnson students, who will start the year six blocks from their old building.

CAPTION: Principal Robert W. Gill keeps in touch by cellular phone with workers preparing classrooms at vacant Douglass Junior High. Asbestos removal at one school has forced the hasty arrangements.