First-grader Conner Lewis picks out a crayon on the first day of school for… (Sue Ogrocki / Associated…)
The parents outside Plaza Towers Elementary were misty-eyed — and the television camera lenses focused — as they watched students return to a school devastated by a tornado.
It has been nearly three months since a massive twister leveled the Plaza Towers campus in Moore, Okla., killing seven third-graders as students and teachers sought shelter in hallways and restrooms. In all, the storm killed 24 people.
On Friday, the school welcomed back students as the new academic year got underway.
It had been a day that Amy Simpson, Plaza Towers' principal, worried about all summer. But the students quickly calmed her.
"I think that our fears that kids would come back scared and not ready for us — that was just ours, because the kids haven't really reacted negatively to being back to school," Simpson said.
Plaza Towers is being temporarily housed in a building at a nearby junior high school. Briarwood Elementary, which was also destroyed in the May 20 tornado, is being housed this year in a Baptist church.
Both schools will be rebuilt on their original sites by August 2014, Simpson said. Construction plans call for tornado shelters in both schools, she said.
On Friday, posters from across the nation lined the walls, offering messages of support.
"I will pray for you," read one message written in blue marker.
And in a child's handwriting: "You are okay."
Plaza Towers, which has pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade classes, had 339 students enrolled as of Friday, Simpson said. The number was down from 497 last year.
Simpson's thoughts, she said, keep returning to the seven dead students, who are memorialized with wooden crosses on the flat, empty campus where the school once stood.
"Before, if somebody wasn't coming back, it was because they moved," Simpson said. "Now, not only have some of them moved; some of them have passed away."
The Moore Public Schools system had an estimated $55 million in damage from the May 20 tornado and another storm later that month, said Supt. Robert Romines. In all, 23 of the system's 35 school sites were damaged.
At Plaza Towers, teachers and staff got access to their building Aug. 1. In the days since, teachers have rushed to piece together their classrooms and to make the building welcoming.
Nikki McCurtain, a Plaza Towers fourth-grade teacher, says she has been heartened and overwhelmed by all the well-wishers and volunteers who have helped get things ready.
On Friday, McCurtain's 23 students decorated paper cutouts of their hands. The decorations were dripping with glue and glitter as McCurtain hung them on the back of her classroom door Friday evening.
"I told them that the cool thing about hands is that we are the ones that push open the doors of our future, and we can either make it bright or gloomy," she said.
The students, she said, didn't talk much about the tornado, though a few talked about what they lost. One boy lost his dog. A counselor was in the classroom all day.
Stephanie Lunsford came to the school early Friday to wish the teachers well. Her daughter once attended Plaza Towers, and because Lunsford was a member of the PTA and lives nearby, she is still close to teachers and students at the school.
When Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary students entered their classrooms, they found all their school supplies sitting on their desks, said Lunsford, who has been organizing volunteer efforts. Markers, notebooks, folders, erasers — everything had been donated to the students, she said.
"They don't have to worry about a thing," Lunsford said.
Earlier this week, volunteers gave free backpacks to students, she said. The backpacks contained stuffed animals and notes from children all over the world.
Some of the notes, Lunsford said, were from students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders were killed in December.
In the notes, she said, they wrote that they were praying for the Oklahoma kids. And that they loved them.