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‘Normal’ is far away for Stoneman Douglas High students, who returned to empty desks

It wasn’t a normal school day for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, but it was a first step.

On Wednesday, students — most wearing clothes with the school’s mascot (an eagle) or the school color (maroon) — made their way back to the campus that two weeks earlier became the site of the deadliest high school shooting in American history. They ducked a horde of TV cameras and reporters, weaved past well-wishers dropping off flowers and posters at the memorial for the 17 victims and passed hundreds of law enforcement officers who showed up to offer support, some from as far away as New York.

Despite the anxiety many students felt, roughly 95 percent of the school’s nearly 3,300 students came to class.

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When they passed through the gates of the school’s fence, now a mosaic of signs offering messages of support, the world inside was just as surreal.

"We were just trying to re-instill the sense of normalcy that we all had before," said Kai Koerber, 17. "Because at the end of the day, life has to go on, and it doesn’t mean we forget the people we knew before."

The focus of the day, as Principal Ty Thompson tweeted Tuesday evening, was on "emotional readiness and comfort not curriculum."

In some classrooms, the empty desks where the slain victims of the massacre once sat were turned into memorials. Koerber’s Advanced Placement Language Composition teacher draped one in velvet cloth with a teddy bear in the seat.

"Words cannot describe how painful it is to see an empty seat," he said. "You never want to see that in your class. It’s unreal."

Another empty desk had a new message written on it — "You Matter #MSDStrong."

The freshman building where the gunman opened fire is now a crime scene. It’s fenced off from the rest of campus, and the fence is covered in posters and art people from around the world sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

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Teachers, parents and students alike hope classes are never held inside again. The school district has said it plans to demolish the building and replace it with a memorial, and Florida legislators have promised to help build new classrooms.

In the meantime, school administrators have reorganized class schedules to accommodate the approximately 900 students who attended class in the building.

Freshman Larah Haberland, who had six of her eight classes in the freshman building and left some of her notebooks there, had an entirely new schedule today with new classroom assignments in different buildings. There were many students in similar circumstances.

Some of the new class schedules had a painful reminder from two weeks ago — Scott Beigel, a geography teacher who was killed during the shooting, was still listed as a teacher. Larah’s geography class is now taught by another teacher who volunteered to cover one of Beigel’s classes.

"I just feel weird to be back at school and sometimes sad because of the people who are not there anymore," Larah said.

In band class, students talked about what happened, about hiding for hours in the closet, before pulling out guitars and learning how to play "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton, said 15-year-old Liam Kiernan.

In another English class, the teacher handed out a notebook and asked students to write messages to one of their former classmates, 14-year-old Cara Loughran. Alishba Hashmi, 14, said her teacher told the class she planned to give the notebook to the Loughran family, because all the rest of Cara’s schoolwork is locked inside the freshman building.

There were also 150 counselors on campus — and, of course, dozens of therapy dogs.

"You could hug and kiss them," said 17-year-old Emmanuel Correa. "It was really nice."

Teachers passed out letters of support from students around the country, some of which the authors signed with their social media usernames and an offer to talk about what happened anytime. Christopher Powell, 17, walked off campus Wednesday afternoon holding three of them — one a piece of blue paper shaped like a fish and another a half-colored page from a coloring book.

"I’m gonna [contact] them and I’m gonna leave a message, a thank you," he said. "The fact that everyone knows who we are and they understand the pain that we’re feeling right now, it definitely helps. I appreciate it a lot."

After school ended for the day, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie also talked about the outpouring of support the community has experienced.

"We’ve seen the worst of humanity, but we’ve also seen that followed by incredible acts of kindness and support from throughout Broward County and across the world, and we’re extremely grateful for that," he said.

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Although most students returned to Stoneman Douglas on Wednesday, Runcie said that the roughly 170 who stayed home won’t be penalized. Only 15 students have asked for information about transferring to a new school, something the district has previously said they’re happy to help with. Four employees out of 215 have asked about working somewhere else.

Like Wednesday, the rest of the school week will be half days for students to ease the transition back to a full schedule.

Returning to the scene of a tragedy two weeks later can be psychologically fraught for some kids, but for most children it’s actually helpful, said Jonathan Comer, the Director of the Mental Health Interventions and Technology Program at Florida International University.

"After traumatic events, we typically encourage families and schools to return to their familiar structure and daily routines as quickly as possible," he said. "Familiarity goes a long way in fostering a sense of return to normalcy and predictability."

Although Runcie said the first day back felt like "a family reunion," he acknowledged that it will be impossible to return to normal. "We know that things will never, ever be the same, but we’re going to try to make sure that we can figure out how to move forward," he said.

And for some students, that means taking on a new identity: survivor.

"It’s a weird thing to call yourself a survivor," said 16-year-old Ramis Hashmi. "You never get used to that title."

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