After weeks of unspeakable tragedy, funerals and muted holiday celebrations, Thursday was about normalcy for Sandy Hook Elementary School students -- at least as much as was possible.
About 500 students and their teachers were back in class for the first time since a gunman slaughtered 20 children and six adults at their Newtown, Conn., school three weeks ago.
They returned to a school that bore the Sandy Hook name but is located about seven miles away from the building where their classmates died. News reports said a large number of police greeted the students and teachers, while several officers guarded the school's entrance, checking IDs of parents who came to drop off their children.
PHOTOS: Sandy Hook students return to class
The building -- until recently nearby Monroe's shuttered Chalk Hill School -- has been refurbished to help make the transition as smooth as possible. Many students were greeted by their old desks and classroom furniture.
Thursday was designed to be a "regular schedule" day, Newtown School District Superintendent Janet Robinson said.
"All of our desks are there," 9-year-old Ben Paley told CNN.
Julian Ford, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut who helped counsel families in the days immediately following the shooting, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that the feel of familiarity is important for the children.
"When they see the classroom, it is not going to take them right back to the terrible incidents that happened," he said, "but to all the experiences in the prior part of the school year -- most of which will be very reassuring and positive for them."
There have been other reassurances as well. The father of a third-grader said his 8-year-old daughter received a stuffed animal during Wednesday's open house at the new school, one she picked out herself.
"I'm not worried about her going back," Vinny Alvarez told the Associated Press after the Wednesday event. "The fear kind of kicks back in a little bit, but we're very excited for her and we got to see many, many kids today. The atmosphere was very cheerful."
Backpacks and other items left behind the day of the shooting have been saved. A few days before Christmas -- while on a visit to the Monroe school building -- a young boy recovered the e-reader he left in his desk, Monroe First Selectman Steve Vavrek told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
"He was just so happy to see he didn't lose his possession," Vavrek said. "He came in and saw it and it was like he never left."
Donated "snowflakes," crafted by people from around the world, greeted returning students.
And Robinson, the superintendent, said teachers were "creative" in putting together their new classrooms, many of which she said are physically quite different from the rooms students fled Dec. 14 as Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary, killing 26 there, including 20 children, before killing himself.
Despite the efforts to make the new school comfortable, signs of the tragedy were unavoidable. Counselors were on hand Thursday for staff, parents and students. Parents were allowed to stay in a lecture room for "as long as they wished" and to accompany their children to class to help them adjust.
Although the police presence around the school has been increased, Monroe Police Lt. Keith White said Wednesday that officials don't want "overburden" students.
"We want this to be a normal school where they can go and enjoy themselves and learn throughout the day," White told reporters.
As the students return, the parents of Sandy Hook children are grappling with how to help their children adjust.
"There is no real playbook for this," one mother, Denise Correia, told CNN. "We are kind of just kind sensing our child and trying to meet the needs that we can and just support them."
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