Keeping it normal.
That's what the first day back to school after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., was all about Monday in Nebraska and western Iowa schools.
Many had prepared, sending or posting tips for parents to use over the weekend in talking with their children and for teachers to use with students. They'd sent or posted reminders of safety procedures for families and staff alike.
At St. Wenceslaus School, the day began with a special 7:30 a.m. staff meeting to go over those preparations — and to offer a prayer.
Teachers and staff decided that they would be open to students' needs and worries, said Rachel Wardian, a 7th and 8th grade science teacher. But by midday, only a few students had asked questions. “Most of them are just mulling it over in their heads,” said Wardian, a second-year teacher. “I don't know if it's entirely real (to them).”
So while the tragedy was on the minds of staff, parents and some students, it did not appear to disrupt the day. The materials made available to parents by schools and various professionals from Boys Town to the American Academy of Pediatrics advised not raising the topic with children unless they brought it up.
Many schools had counselors and crisis teams ready to go Monday in case students raised those concerns.
But several school officials said younger students didn't appear to know what had happened. Older ones seemed to be handling it OK, with a few questions.
“Parents know what they're doing,” said Kevin Riley, superintendent of the Gretna Public Schools. “They kept the young ones away from it.”
In Beatrice, Neb., two principals overheard elementary students in the cafeteria talking about the incident, said Superintendent Roy Baker. But they seemed to be handling it OK.
Parents appeared to need a little more concrete assurances.
The Omaha school district had received a few calls from parents asking about security plans and preparations. “We're finding that it's more the parents than it is the students,” said David Patton, an Omaha Public Schools spokesman.
Rod Engel, principal of the Central City (Neb.) Elementary, said his school had gotten some calls from parents. The overall message to parents and students, he said, is that the school is safe.
Several Elkhorn elementary schools, too, had gotten a few parent calls, said Cindy Gray, an associate superintendent. One parent told a school official that it was kind of like dropping a child off for the first day of school again.
“Students haven't brought it up a lot, but there certainly is awareness,” she said. “When students have initiated conversations, we have responded.”
In some areas, police, too, were keeping a closer eye on schools. In Lincoln, police notified school district officials Friday that they would have an increased presence in school neighborhoods. Council Bluffs police said they'd do the same at elementary schools on Monday. “They want to show their support and be there,” said Diane Ostrowski, a spokeswoman for the Council Bluffs Community Schools.
School officials said they would be reviewing their emergency plans and adding to them if necessary.
“Any new information we get, we go back and look again,” said Gray, the Elkhorn administrator.
At the same time, some were seeking to honor the victims.
At the suggestion of a teacher, Kim Kazmierczak, principal of Wilson Middle School in Council Bluffs, asked staff to consider wearing green and white Monday in memory of those affected, part of a national effort. About 75 percent of the staff participated.
Teachers, too, have had to keep it normal, not just in their classroom routines but also in their own responses to the tragedy.
St. Wenceslaus teachers heard the news Friday on the television in the teachers' lounge at lunchtime.
Wardian, the science teacher, said she just wanted to hug her students. “I just kept looking up to make sure they were all there. It struck a nerve as a teacher.”
She has focused on doing what she needed to do. “Because that's the best way to honor them, to keep our kids safe. We want to make sure they're emotionally safe as well. That's what we're going to do.”
World-Herald staff writer Michael O'Connor contributed to this report.
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