Consolidating the first-grade classes at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 young students were shot dead last week, is part of the complicated and sensitive process of preparing for the surviving students' return next month to a refurbished middle school in neighboring Monroe.
Newtown Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson, in an interview Friday with The Associated Press, said most of the classes will remain intact, except the first grade, which lost the students in an attack by a gunman who also killed six educators, his mother and himself. She said one of the school's three first-grade classes has just one remaining student.
Robinson said she expects most of the Sandy Hook teachers will be on hand when students begin classes at the former Chalk Hill school, just a few miles away, on Jan. 3.
"We're going to have a lot of support for them," Robinson said of the approximately 30 teachers and staff members from Sandy Hook. "Certainly, if they need more time, they can have more time. But I think many don't want their children -- they own those children -- they don't want them to be with a substitute. So I think most of them are going to try to come back."
Approximately 500 students attend Sandy Hook, which includes kindergarten through fourth grade. Because the children are so young, Robinson said work needed to be done to accommodate them, including raising the bathroom floors so they can reach the toilets. She said rooms have been repainted, the school's technology has been upgraded and teachers from Monroe have volunteered to decorate the classrooms.
Chalk Hill hasn't been used as a middle school for two years, she said, adding Monroe is allowing Newtown to use it for free.
"We're so fortunate," said Robinson, the Newtown superintendent for the past five years. "Monroe is a great neighbor."
Parents will have an opportunity on Jan. 2, the day when the rest of Newtown students return from their holiday break, to tour the school and reconnect with friends and teachers. The teachers will meet that morning.
Sandy Hook parents were updated on the situation during a private meeting at Newtown High School on Thursday. Robinson said officials from Newtown and Monroe, including the respective police chiefs, tried to reassure them that efforts are being made to keep their children safe.
"When they left, it was an upbeat atmosphere in the room," Robinson said. "This is an awful thing that the Sandy Hook community -- and they really are a community. It's an awful thing they experienced, but we're all going to make it through, we're all going to do this."
Robinson, who on Friday morning observed a moment of silence for the victims with Gov. Dannel Malloy and other officials, said she has lost count of how many funerals and wakes she has attended. She is trying to attend at least a wake or funeral for all 20 students and six staff members.
She recalled Friday not realizing the breadth of the Dec. 14 tragedy until hours after her office got a call around 9:30 a.m. from the school bus company, saying it had heard about a shooting at Sandy Hook.
"I said, `Well there can't be a shooting at Sandy Hook. It must be in the neighborhood,"' she said.
Robinson then asked her secretary to call the school to find out if it needed to go into a lockdown mode but no one answered the phone.
When she arrived at the Sandy Hook firehouse where families were gathering, she said, she still didn't have a handle on the number of victims. Frantic parents where asking about teacher Victoria Soto's class. Soto, 27, was among those killed in the massacre.
Robinson said she knew at that point one teacher had called from the school on her cellphone, telling authorities she was hiding with her students in a room. Robinson said she also knew of children who had escaped the building and were discovered at the police station and other locations.
"I still didn't know if I might find other groups of kids yet," she said. "I didn't know for quite some time."
Eventually the police chief asked to talk to her outside.
"And I'll just remember standing there, against an emergency vehicle, all kinds of helicopters overhead, and he said, `Janet, this is much worse than you're probably thinking,"' she said.
Robinson recalled saying the death of one child was awful but the chief told her there were "quantities" of fatalities.
"It takes your breath away," she said.