A bus traveling from Newtown, Conn., to nearby Monroe passes 26 angels representing… (Jessica Hill / Associated…)
As the children stepped off the school bus, the signs pointed to the typical kind of excitement for the first day back at class. But for the 500 or so students and teachers from Sandy Hook Elementary School, there was nothing typical about Thursday.
After three weeks of unspeakable tragedy, funerals and muted holiday celebrations, Thursday was an effort to deliver a sense of normalcy for those who survived the shooting massacre that left 20 first-graders and six adults dead, residents of Newtown, Conn., in shock and a nation in grief.
Now the school is in a new town — Monroe, just seven miles away — but with its old name and a lot of support.
"A lot of them were happy to see their friends they hadn't seen in a while," Monroe Police Lt. Keith White told reporters. He described class attendance as "very good."
Sandy Hook Elementary officials declined to talk with reporters, who were kept several miles away to not be a distraction.
The new building — until recently Monroe's shuttered Chalk Hill School — was refurbished to help in the transition. Students arrived to find their old desks, classroom decorations and Sandy Hook's furniture.
Julian Ford, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut who helped counsel families in the days after the massacre, emphasized that familiarity was important for the children, who live more in the present than adults.
"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."
Despite the efforts to make the new school comfortable, signs of the tragedy were unavoidable. Students spent time with so-called comfort dogs and counselors were on hand. Inside a lecture hall, concerned parents asked questions about security and "how school was going to go," White said.
At the state Capitol in Hartford, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced the formation of a Sandy Hook Advisory Commission to make policy recommendations on public safety, prevention of gun violence and mental health.
It was no surprise that a large police presence greeted students and teachers outside the school. But White said it would be reevaluated "week to week."
"We don't want them to think this is a police state," he said. "We want them to know that this is a school and a school first. And that it is a place they are to come to learn, enjoy their friends and grow up."
Ford said parents had a crucial role to play as their children recovered from what they would probably remember as a "very strange period," filled with too many people, too much going on. "When parents are able to express what they are feeling in a way that communicates that it's going to be all right, kids really pick up" those cues.
One mother, Denise Correia, told CNN: "There is no real playbook for this. We are kind of just sensing our child and trying to meet the needs that we can, and just support them."