MONROE, Conn.—Sandy Hook Elementary School students, many accompanied by their parents, resumed classes at a retrofitted school here on a bitterly cold Thursday morning. Their return comes less than a month after a gunman opened fire at their school in Newtown, killing 20 children and six adults, including Principal Dawn Hochsprung, in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
Buses began arriving around 8:30 a.m. at Chalk Hill School, seven miles from their former building in Sandy Hook. The snowy roads leading to the school were lined with balloons, green and white ribbons—the school's colors—and signs welcoming the kids. "Work Hard," one sign affixed to a tree read. "Get Smart. Have Fun," read another.
About a dozen police cruisers were parked at the entrance to the school, and officers braved the 13-degree temperatures to direct school traffic. But Monroe Police Lt. Keith White had told reporters on Wednesday that uniformed police presence inside would be toned down to allow a sense of normalcy.
Volunteers spent several weeks moving furniture from Sandy Hook School to the new facility, as school officials tried to completely recreate classrooms in an effort to make students as comfortable as possible—right down, they said, to the way crayons were left on their desks.
"Re-establishing routines following any disaster has been found to promote resiliency while also reducing the negative effects of a tragedy like that which occurred in our school," Newtown Schools Superintendent Janet Robinson wrote in a letter to parents. "We all find safety and predictability in our routines, and children are no different."
[Slideshow: Scenes from Newtown, Conn.]
Robinson also announced on Wednesday that Chalk Hill would be renamed Sandy Hook Elementary.
At a press conference, she said that “the students coming in completes the circle. That's what's missing right now—getting our students back."
She added that grief counselors would be available for students and parents, but that the goal would be "to get back to teaching and learning.
"We will obviously take time out from the academics for any conversations that need to take place, and there will be a lot of support there," she said. "All in all, we want the kids to reconnect with their friends and classroom teachers, and I think that's going to be the healthiest thing."
Parents had been encouraged to attend school with their children on Thursday, though not ride with them on buses.
A sign welcoming Sandy Hook students underneath one pointing to Chalk Hill School. (Dylan Stableford)
"I want to reassure you that we understand many parents may need to be near their children on their first day(s) of school and you will be welcome," interim Principal Donna Page had written in her own letter to parents. "That being said, we encourage students to take the bus to school in order to help them return to familiar routines as soon as possible. Parents choosing to join their children may come to school after our 9:07 a.m. opening and will be welcome in the classroom or the auditorium throughout the day."
A note on the school's website warns that parking for parents "may pose some challenges" and that shuttle buses are being provided from an overflow lot at a nearby church.
To "ensure a safe and secure environment," Page continued, "we ask that no more than one adult family member accompany his/her child."
New security systems were installed at Chalk Hill in the wake of the shooting. Earlier this week, Newtown Councilman Steve Vavrek said the school would be "the safest in America"—a phrase that was repeated by Monroe police and school officials on Wednesday, when students and parents were invited to tour the new school.
Other public schools in Newtown reopened within a week of the shootings, but Sandy Hook Elementary has remained closed since Dec. 14, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza shot his way into the school and opened fire before turning a gun on himself. Lanza also killed his mother in their Newtown home before going on the rampage. The school, police officials say, remains a crime scene.
"I want parents and families enduring the loss of their precious children to know their loved ones are foremost in our hearts and minds as we move forward," Page also wrote. "We recognize your needs are paramount in our preparations and planning. Your strength and compassion has been and will continue to be an inspiration to me and countless others as we work to honor the memory of your precious children and our beloved staff."
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