It’s been three months since Plaza Towers Elementary School became the symbolic heart of the mammoth tornado that ripped through Moore, Okla., leaving 24 people dead.
The twister leveled the Plaza Towers campus, killing seven third-graders as students and teachers sought shelter in hallways and restrooms.
On Friday, the school welcomed back students -- and their emotional parents -- as the new academic year got underway. Plaza Towers Elementary is being temporarily housed in a nearby junior high school, and Briarwood Elementary, which was also destroyed in the May 20 tornado, is being housed in a Baptist church.
Nikki McCurtain, a Plaza Towers fourth-grade teacher, says she has been both heartened and overwhelmed by all the well-wishers and volunteers who have helped get things ready over the last few weeks. That’s why she spent the late hours of Thursday night in the only way she knew to clear her head and to think.
"I just needed to spend some time alone in my classroom," she said.
The weeks after the storm have been a wave of emotion, she said. There has been so much sadness, but also so much kindness from friends and strangers.
Plaza Towers students and families walked into the temporary school Friday morning in front of rows of television cameras and reporters, said Stephanie Lunsford, who came by to wish the teachers well. Lunsford’s daughter once attended Plaza Towers, and since Lunsford was a member of the PTA and lives nearby, she is still close to teachers and students at the school.
Friday morning was hard for many of the parents of Plaza Towers students, Lunsford said. She hugged her friends, several of them crying, as they watched their kids walk into the building at Central Junior High that has been converted for the year to Plaza Towers.
“It’s OK,” Lunsford told her friends. “They’re in good hands.”
Both Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary will be rebuilt on their original sites, according to Amy Simpson, Plaza Towers’ principal. Construction plans call for tornado shelters in both schools.
When Plaza Towers students entered their classrooms Friday morning, they found all their school supplies, sitting on their desks, said Lunsford, who has been organizing volunteer efforts. Markers, notebooks, folders, erasers -- everything has been donated to the students, she said.
“They didn’t have to worry about a thing,” Lunsford said. “It was all taken care of.”
In a letter to Moore Public Schools teachers and families, Superintendent Robert Romines acknowledged that the community was “faced with mixed emotions.”
“We feel the excitement that comes with the beginning of school -- new backpacks, new school supplies, new teachers, old friends, new friends and all of the things that come with the first days of a new school year,” he wrote.
“While we must move forward” from the storm, he wrote, “we will never forget.”