Newtown, One Week Later

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — December 21, 2012 3 min read
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Today, the Newtown school district marks a week since 20 of its students and six its staff were killed. The community is continuing to mourn those lost and to plan for the return to school for Sandy Hook Elementary School teachers and students.

Six of the district’s seven schools started on Tuesday. The district’s superintendent, Janet Robinson, said in an interview that she would describe five of those openings as successful. A threat called into the district’s other elementary school, unfortunately, meant that that school did not have a full day of school on Tuesday.

Though some of the staff and students were nervous about going to school, Robinson said she believed it had been the right move in the end. “Students told me, ‘Thank you for sending us back to school. We’re happy to be back with our friends,’” Robinson said. She said while many teachers had been tentative in the morning, by afternoon, routines had begun to kick in.

Sandy Hook, on the other hand, will not return to school until after the holiday. Robinson said that it would take time for a middle school in a neighboring town to be prepared for the elementary school students. Elementary student-sized desks and teachers’ materials from the old Sandy Hook building are still being moved into the middle school, which is also getting a fresh coat of paint. Robinson said that she would consult with the community before determining whether the building would be renamed Sandy Hook for the rest of the year, but she said she imagined it would be.

Beyond the practical challenges, this week has been full of memorials for the shooting’s victims, and Robinson said that it was not realistic to expect students and teachers returning to class to have substitutes while some teachers attended ceremonies. “I saw the extent of their sorrow and grieving and pain. They need time to deal with that,” Robinson said.

Last night, Robinson held what she described as a very positive parent meeting, reintroducing Donna Page, a retired Sandy Hook principal who will serve as the school’s interim principal. Page retired just two and a half years ago, so she is a familiar face for the parents of older Sandy Hook students.

Plans are also beginning to fall into place for replacing staff members who were lost last Friday. An interim school psychologist has already been found. As for the teachers, “we lost 1st grade teachers, but we lost 1st grade students, too,” Robinson said. The remaining 1st grade teacher at the school has “the challenging task of bringing together the survivors into one class in Monroe.”

Robinson said that local and state police units from around the state were working together to provide protection to the district’s schools this week, and would do so at the Sandy Hook campus when students return to school.

The superintendent has also been attending memorials and funerals for the victims, but in the meantime that there is a constant barrage of decisions to be made. A retired former superintendent from Old Lyme, Conn., Betty Osga, has stepped in to help make some of the constant stream of decisions. Osga had no previous connection to Newtown, but was a trusted friend of Robinson’s. “I told my staff, her decisions are my decisions,” she said. School board members have taken charge of dealing with the influx of donations and offers of help. State commissioner Stefan Pryor has also been in the Newtown every day this week.

On Jan. 2, Sandy Hook staff will return for a meeting with Page, and the parents and students will be invited in to visit the school and make themselves comfortable, Robinson said. Counselors will be present and no media will be allowed. Classes will resume Jan. 3.

Lesli Maxwell and I spoke to school officials earlier this week from Columbine High School, Heath High School, and Thurston High School, all sites of previous school shootings, and wrote about the difficult decisions schools face in the aftermath of trauma . The stories they told are impossibly sad, but also show how people pick up the pieces and support each other after tragedies. As Cathy Paine, a school psychologist who now leads the National Association of School Psychologists’ committee on recovering from crisis, said, “We move on because we have to.”

Photo: Fire and rescue officials pause for a moment of silence at a makeshift memorial near the main road that leads into Sandy Hook Elementary School during a memorial service on Friday in Newtown, Conn. The chiming of bells reverberated throughout Newtown, commemorating one week since the crackle of gunfire in a schoolhouse killed 20 children and six adults in a massacre that has shaken the community and the nation. --Julio Cortez/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.