MONROE, Conn. – On a tour Wednesday of his daughter's new school, Vinny Alvarez took a moment to thank her third-grade teacher, who protected the class from a rampaging gunman by locking her classroom door and keeping the children in a corner.
Alvarez was one of many Sandy Hook Elementary School parents expressing gratitude to the teachers during an open house at their school in the neighboring town of Monroe, where their children are resuming classes today for the first time since the Dec. 14 shooting that left 20 students and six educators dead.
Alvarez said each student received a gift box with a toy inside and he expressed thanks to the teacher, Courtney Martin, who kept her door locked until it was safe to leave the building.
"Everybody there thanked her in their own way," he said.
Newtown Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson announced that the Sandy Hook staff decided that the students' new school, the former Chalk Hill Middle School in Monroe, would be renamed Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"That's who they are. They're the Sandy Hook family," Robinson said after a news conference at a park in Monroe a few miles from the school. She added that renaming the Chalk Hill school will allow staff and students to keep "their identity and a comfort level."
The school where the shootings occurred remains closed and guarded by police. Newtown officials haven't decided yet on the building's future.
The gunman, Adam Lanza, also killed his mother at the home they shared in Newtown before the school shootings, which ended when Lanza fatally shot himself as police arrived. Police haven't released any details about a motive.
Numerous police officers on Wednesday guarded the outside of the Monroe school, which is about 7 miles from the old school, and told reporters to stay away.
"I think right now it has to be the safest school in America," Monroe police Lt. Keith White said.
Teachers attended staff meetings at the new school on Wednesday morning and were visited by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy before the open house, White said.
Robinson said Chalk Hill School has been transformed into a "cheerful" place for the surviving students to resume normal school routines. She said mental health counselors continue to be available for anyone who needs them.
Donna Page, a retired Sandy Hook principal, will lead the new school.
During the open house on Wednesday, Alvarez said his 8-year-old daughter also got to pick out a stuffed animal to take home from the school library.
"I'm not worried about her going back," he said of his daughter Cynthia. "The fear kind of kicks back in a little bit, but we're very excited for her and we got to see many, many kids today. The atmosphere was very cheerful."
Several signs welcoming the Sandy Hook students to their new school were posted along the road leading to the school in a rural, mostly residential neighborhood. One said "Welcome Sandy Hook Elementary Kids," while a similar sign added "You are in our prayers."
Teams of workers, many of them volunteers, prepared the Chalk Hill school with fresh paint and new furniture and even raised bathroom floors so the smaller elementary school students can reach the toilets. The students' desks, backpacks and other belongings that were left behind following the shooting were taken to the new school to make them feel at home.
Counselors say it's important for children to get back to a normal routine and for teachers and parents to offer sensitive reassurances.
One parent, Robert Bazuro of Newtown, said he was pleased that school was resuming Thursday for the Sandy Hook survivors. He brought his two children, who are in the second and fourth grades, to a barbershop Wednesday morning.
"We're very happy the kids are going back and we're very thankful for Monroe for everything they've done for us," Bazuro said. He said his children weren't at Sandy Hook on the day of the shootings. He declined to elaborate.
When classes start, Robinson said teachers will try to make it as normal a school day as possible for the children.
"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."
Eaton-Robb reported from Hartford, Conn.