MONROE, Conn. – For her son's first day of school since last month's massacre at his Sandy Hook Elementary, Sarah Caron tried to make Thursday as normal as possible. She made his favorite pancakes, and she walked the second-grader to the top of the driveway for the school bus.
But it was harder than usual to say goodbye.
"I hugged him a lot longer than normal, until he said, 'Mommy, please,'" she said. "And then he got on the bus, and he was OK."
Her 7-year-old son, William, was among more than 400 students who escaped a gunman's rampage that killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14. On Thursday, the returning students settled in at their old, familiar desks but in a different school in a different town.
Returning students, teachers and administrators were met by a large police presence outside their new school in the neighboring town of Monroe, where a middle school that had been shuttered for nearly two years was overhauled and renamed after their old school. Several officers guarded the entrance and checked IDs of parents dropping off children.
Monroe police Lt. Keith White said attendance was very good and the children were getting back to "business as usual."
"A lot of them were happy to see their friends they hadn't seen in a while," he said.
William's classroom had been across the hall from a first-grade room where children and teacher Victoria Soto died, and he had been nervous about going back to school, Caron said. But an open house Wednesday at the school eased some of his fears.
"They didn't talk about what happened at all," she said. "They went in, met up with their teachers, had a little circle time and it was just about trying to get them back into school."
Most of the students arrived at the new school in Monroe by bus, something school officials had suggested to help them get back into a familiar routine.
Nick Phelps, who lives a few blocks from the original Sandy Hook school, said his first-grader and third-grader are excited about the new school because it means a longer bus ride to Monroe, which is about 7 miles away.
He was there when the bus brought them home Thursday afternoon.
"I was never so excited to see my children and, certainly, to see my children get off the bus. There was a shared joy," he said.
About 80 parents attended an assembly Thursday with school and police officials, who fielded questions about security and activities planned for their children. White said security will remain at a high level for now and will be re-evaluated each week.
The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, shot and killed his mother inside their Newtown home before driving to the school. He shot his way into the building and carried out the massacre before committing suicide as police arrived.
On Thursday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced the creation of an advisory commission that will review and recommend changes to state laws and policies on gun control, school safety measures and mental health services in the wake of the Sandy Hook rampage.
Teams of workers, many of them volunteers, prepared the new school and even raised bathroom floors so the smaller elementary school students can reach the toilets. The students' backpacks and other belongings that were left behind after the shooting were taken to the new school to make them feel at home.
Students found the same chairs and desks, when possible. Their classroom walls were painted the same colors and hung with the same pictures. Other details, such as the location of bookshelves and cubby holes, were replicated as much as possible.
Newtown school Superintendent Janet Robinson said the school has been transformed into a "cheerful" place for the students. She said mental health counselors continue to be available for anyone who needs them.
Caron, 32, said her son knows what happened and has undergone counseling. She said her 5-year-old daughter, Paige, attends afternoon kindergarten at the school and has been dealing with nightmares about "snakes and bears and coyotes."
"She wasn't at school that day but was with me when we went to look for William at the firehouse," Caron said. "Unfortunately, she heard more about it than I wish she did."
Intellectually, Caron said, she knows her children will be very safe at their new school.
"But, emotionally," she said. "It's very hard to turn off the little 'What if?' that kind of hangs on and says, 'Well, you know what, December 14th started out as a normal day, too."
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.