NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Hundreds of the children who escaped the harrowing attack on their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last month head back to classes on Thursday for the first time since a gunman killed 20 of their schoolmates and six staff members.
School officials are preparing for droves of anxious parents to join the fleet of buses carting children to a disused middle school in the neighbouring town of Monroe. Chalk Hill Middle School, closed about a year and half ago, has been hastily refurbished in the three weeks since the December 14 attack and renamed Sandy Hook Elementary School.
With their children's safety foremost on parents' and officials' minds in the wake of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, the school has been outfitted with a new security system. Monroe Police Department officers will patrol the grounds, and all outside doorways and sidewalks will be under surveillance.
"I think right now we have to make this the safest school in America," Monroe Police Lieutenant Keith White said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Parents wishing to remain with their kids, ages 5 to 10 in kindergarten through grade 4, will be allowed to accompany them to their classrooms and afterwards may stay in the school's "lecture room" for as long as they like, according to a memo to parents on the school's website. Counselling will be available for students and parents at the new school, about 7 miles (11 km) south of the scene of the shooting.
"I'm not sure I'm ready yet to totally let them go," Sandy Hook parent Sarah Swansiger said on CNN about her trepidation over the return to school.
When the students return around 9 a.m. Thursday, they will find all of the belongings they left behind when teachers and police evacuated them from Sandy Hook nearly three weeks ago after Adam Lanza burst through the school doors and opened fire.
They will be welcomed to a building that has been decked out as a "Winter Wonderland" with the help of thousands of kids from around the world.
"This does not look like the other elementary school," Newtown School Superintendent Janet Robinson said emphatically.
In the meantime, no new details have emerged to explain why the 20-year-old Lanza, armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, two other firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, targeted the school.
Described by family friends as having Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at their home about 5 miles from the school before driving to Sandy Hook and embarking on the massacre, police said. He then took his own life as police were arriving at the school, which had an enrolment of 456.
Police have offered no firm motive for the attack, and state police investigators have said it could be months before they finish their report.
The massacre in Newtown, a rural New England town of 27,000 residents about 70 miles northeast of New York City, stunned the nation, prompting President Barack Obama to call it the worst day of his presidency and reigniting an extensive debate on gun control. Obama has tasked Vice President Joe Biden with assembling a package of gun-control proposals to submit to Congress in the next several weeks.
The National Rifle Association, the most powerful gun-rights lobby in the United States, has rebuffed calls for more stringent firearms restrictions and instead called for armed guards to patrol every public school in the country.
Writing by Dan Burns; Editing by Lisa Shumaker