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Seeking normalcy for Sandy Hook students

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Since escaping a gunman's rampage at their elementary school, the 8-year-old Connors triplets have suffered nightmares, jumped at noises and clung to their parents a little more than usual.

Now parents like David Connors are bracing to send their children back to school, nearly three weeks after the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. It won't be easy -- for the parents, or the children who heard the gunshots that killed 20 of their classmates and six educators.

"I'm nervous about it," Connors, 40, said. "It's unchartered waters for us. I know it's going to be difficult."

Classes start Thursday at a repurposed school in the neighboring town of Monroe, where the students' desks have been moved, along with backpacks and other belongings that were left behind in the chaos after the Dec. 14 attack. Families have been going in to see the new school, and an open house is scheduled for Wednesday.

Workers have been getting the school ready, painting, moving furniture and even raising the floors in the bathrooms of the former middle school so the smaller elementary school students can reach the toilets.

Connors, an engineer, said he felt reassured after visiting the former Chalk Hill school. He said his children were excited to see their backpacks and coats, and the family was greeted by a police officer at the door and grief counselors in the hallways.

Teachers will try to make it as normal a school day as possible for the children, Superintendent Janet Robinson said.

"We want to get back to teaching and learning," she said. "We will obviously take time out from the academics for any conversations that need to take place, and there will be a lot of support there. All in all, we want the kids to reconnect with their friends and classroom teachers, and I think that's going to be the healthiest thing."

Some teachers have already been working on their classrooms. Robinson said all of the teachers will be honored, but officials are still working out how and when to do so.

"Everyone was part and parcel of getting as many kids out of there safely as they could," she said. "Almost everybody did something to save kids."

Julian Ford, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut who helped counsel families in the days immediately after the shooting, recommended addressing questions when they arise but otherwise focusing on regular schoolwork.

"Kids just spontaneously make associations and will start talking about something that reminds them of someone, or that reminds them of some of the scary parts of the experience," Ford said. "They don't need a lot of words; they need a few selective words that are thoughtful and sensitive."

Parents might have a harder time with fear than children, Ford said.

Before the shooting, a baby-sitter would take Connors' children to the bus stop. But Connors said he'll probably take the third-graders the first few days.

"I think that they need to get back into a normal routine as quickly as possible," Connors said. "It's going to be a long road back. Back to what, I guess is the biggest question. Everyone keeps throwing that word around, the new normal. What does the new normal look like? I think everybody kind of has to define that for themselves."

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