(CNN) — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students returned to classes Wednesday hoping to restore some sense of normalcy two weeks after a former student stormed the hallways with an AR-15 style rifle, killing 17 classmates and faculty members.
But the return was anything but normal, as students encountered a campus swarming with media, law enforcement officers and flashing patrol cars, and well-wishers passing out flowers.
One group even offered “free pony kisses” to the survivors.
“It does give me comfort to know we do have more security, but also, it makes me think back to the day,” junior Sawyer Garrity said in a video to CNN from her car, as she waited in a long line of traffic to enter the school parking lot. “I know they’re all here to make us feel safe… but really it’s just making me more anxious.”
Teachers hope to ease students back into a routine with a shortened four-hour class schedule this week. Classes began Wednesday at 7:40 a.m. with a 17-second period of silence in honor of the victims of the February 14 shooting.
Students walked into a school filled with grief counselors, comfort dogs and reminders of the tragedy all around them. To honor those lost in the shooting, students placed flowers on empty desks.
The shooting galvanized a student-led movement calling for stricter gun laws. After two weeks of protests, funerals and vigils, the return to classes marked a transition, said 10th grader Tanzil Philip.
“I think it’s hitting us all hard because we have all been so involved with the movement and now we just have to be students.”
‘We’re going to get through this together’
The night before resuming school, Isabela Barry played her guitar to calm her nerves. She lost a friend in the shooting, and she was anxious about returning to classrooms missing those who would no longer be there.
On the other hand, the thought of going back was reassuring in some ways, she said. Despite the anxiety, it will be comforting to return to the one place where everyone is bound by a similar experience.
“We all had that moment of realization of what truly matters and what’s important,” she said.
Since the shooting, Barry has had trouble sleeping in the dark. To alleviate anxiety, she and Garrity had “a virtual sleepover” Tuesday night, leaving their computer cameras on as they slept.
“We’re going to get through this together,” Barry said.
‘We are all connected’
As classes resume, the school is trying to strike a balance between safety and creating a supportive environment, Principal Ty Thompson said in a phone call to parents Tuesday.
Students were told not to bring backpacks this week as the focus will be on emotional readiness and comfort, not curriculum.
By the second class, student Ashley Paseltiner said the mood had lightened inside the hallways as friends and teachers reunited with hugs and laughter.
“The vibe is good,” she said.
In senior Demitri Hoth’s AP literature and composition class, students stood in a circle, passing lines of string among each other as they shared their feelings in a visual metaphor for coping within the community.
“The end goal was to show how we are all connected and how we can count on each other,” he said.
Like many students, Hannah Karcinell wore an “MSD Strong” shirt to signify her intentions moving forward. Karcinell is part of a campus group that has been exchanging messages on how to get through the difficult days ahead.
The school’s Building 12, where most of the carnage occurred, remains closed. Plans to raze it are under consideration, said Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools. For now, it’s considered a crime scene.
Demand for gun reform
The shooting sparked nationwide debate over gun laws and mass shootings.
With the last day of the state’s legislative session set for March 9, the clock is ticking for lawmakers to make changes following the shooting in Parkland. Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced a $500 million investment in school safety, which will include adding metal detectors, bulletproof glass, steel doors and upgraded locks.
In Washington, the push for new regulation and significantly strengthened background checks for weapons purchases appeared to lose political momentum. President Donald Trump is set to meet with lawmakers Wednesday.
Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter Jaime in the shooting, sent his son back to school on Wednesday. He described the experience as bittersweet.
“I’m not scared because this is now the safest school in America,” he told CNN.
“My son walks in here without his sister. My daughter’s friends walk in there. They used to always walk in with my daughter … and they’re walking in there without her.”
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