Two and-a-half weeks after 26 of their fellow students and teachers were gunned down, children and families from the Sandy Hook School got a preview of their new school home.
Even though it had a police presence so heavy that a local police official called it “the safest school in America,” teachers, staff and administrators attempted to make the former Chalk Hill Middle School, as familiar and welcoming as possible.
The longstanding former principal of Sandy Hook, Donna Page, who had retired in 2010, came back to run the new school for at least the rest of the year. She had been the principal for the current third and fourth graders, before stepping down for Dawn Hochsprung to take over.
Hochsprung was gunned down by Adam Lanza, 20 , trying to protect her students from the gunman, who had also shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, before heading to Sandy Hook School the morning of December 14th.
The school’s sign is now removed. Two police cruisers sit sentinel in its long driveway, keeping onlookers away. Instead, a new sign stands in front of the former Chalk Hill Middle School seven miles south of Sandy Hook, in the neighboring town of Monroe.
“You may have seen the sign, that it’s been renamed ‘Sandy Hook School,'” said Janet Robinson, Newtown superintendent of schools, at a news conference held at a park a mile away from the new Sandy Hook School.
The renaming was part of a much larger effort to have Sandy Hook students find their new home as familiar as possible. The district trucked the students’ desks, chairs, backpacks and even their school supplies from where the massacre had taken place to their new home.
On Wednesday afternoon, students and their parents were directed by the dozens of police into their new school for a tour to prepare them for classes, which begin Thursday.
“They’re so excited to see their teachers,” said Robinson, “and the students coming in completes the circle.”
Along the road that connects Sandy Hook with Chalk Hill, many homes and businesses had signs in their yards with messages like “Welcome Back,” and “America Supports Sandy Hook,” as well as green and white ribbons tied on mailboxes and around trees. Green and white are Sandy Hook’s school colors.
Inside the new school, the focus on Thursday will be academics, according to Superintendent Robinson, although she said that the curriculum will not necessarily be intense at first, to allow students and teachers to re-connect socially.
Additional counselors will be on hand to students who may need emotional support, and for the rest of this week, parents will be allowed to stay with their children in the classroom, if needed. “It’s up to the comfort level of the parents,” said Robinson.
Meanwhile, the Newtown community is trying to strike a balance between mourning and moving on. A drive around the Fairfield County town shows significant change over the two-and-a-half-weeks since the shooting.
At the Sandy Hook Christmas Tree, where there had been thousands of stuffed animals, cards, candles and signs, there’s now open space. Just before New Year’s, the town cleared it all out, moving it into storage to be part of a future, permanent memorial.
It is still not clear what the community will decide to do with the old Sandy Hook School, which remains a crime scene. However, Robinson said that the new school is an environment that promotes healing.
“I watched as teachers from Sandy Hook and Monroe worked together,” she said. “And [they] laughed. Laughter was a very important place to be.”