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 said. "It's unchartered waters for us. I know it's going to be difficult."
Classes are starting Thursday at a repurposed school in the neighboring town of Monroe, where the students' desks have been taken along with backpacks and other belongings that were left behind in the chaos following the shooting on Dec. 14. Families have been coming in to see the new school, and an open house is scheduled for Wednesday.
An army of workers has 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, a 40-year-old engineer, felt reassured after recently visiting the new setup at the former Chalk Hill school in Monroe. He said his children were excited to see their backpacks and coats, and that 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, schools 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."
Teachers are returning as well, and some have already been working on their classrooms. At some point, all those will be honored, but officials are still working out how and when to do so, Robinson said.
"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. One art teacher locked her kids in the kiln room, and I got a message from her on my cellphone saying she wouldn't come out until she saw a police badge."
After the evacuation, teachers grouped their children at a nearby fire station, Robinson said. One sang songs, while others read to the students, she said.
Julian Ford, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut who helped counsel families in the days immediately following the shooting, recommended addressing it as questions come up but otherwise focusing on regular school work.
"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, like, 'We're going to be OK,' and 'We really miss this person, but we'll always be able to think about her or him in ways that are really nice.'"
It will be important for parents and teachers to listen and be observant, Ford said.
"Each of the boys and girls are going to have different reactions to different aspects of the environment, different little things that will be reminders to them," he said.
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 to the bus the first few days.
"I think that they need to get back into a normal routine as quickly as possible," Connors said. "If you're hovering over them at all times, it almost intensifies the fear for them."
His children, who escaped unharmed, ask questions about the gunman.
"It's hard for us to say why," Connors said. "That's kind of what we tell them. This person wasn't well, was sick and didn't get the help he needed."
Connors said his children are excited to go back to school but predicted they might be nervous as the first day approaches. He hopes the grief counseling services continue, he said.
"It's going to be a long road back," Connors said. "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."