Wednesday December 19, 2012

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Sandy Hook Elementary School’s students and teachers will not return to school this week, after all.

The Connecticut school district had hoped to have a place for the survivors of the attack that killed six teachers and 20 students last Friday ready by Wednesday.

Janet Robinson, the Newtown superintendent of schools, said the start date has been pushed back to the new year because the former middle school that was going to be used isn’t prepared. She said she made the decision in conjunction with Donna Page, a retired former principal of Sandy Hook, who has been brought in to lead students and staff following the tragedy.

"It’s just not ready," Robinson said. "The teachers are still not moved in. And, you realize, we have 26 funerals to go to."

Funerals began on Monday, while Newtown’s other schools opened Tuesday. Funerals were held Tuesday for 6-year-olds James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos.

Seven funerals were slated to take place Wednesday, including that of Principal Dawn Hochsprung, who was killed while reportedly lunging at alleged gunman Adam Lanza Friday. It "has been a huge collaborative effort," to convert the Chalk Hill Middle School building in nearby Monroe into a building appropriate for elementary school students, according to the town’s first selectman, Steve Vavrek. "Bathrooms have been raised up, adjustments made," Vavrek said.

Great detail has been taken to make a transition to the new building as easy as possible for the students.

"Each (Sandy Hook) student’s desk is being brought over exactly the way it is," Vavrek said. "I saw today a desk with a crayon between the crayon box and the desk, exactly the way the young lady left it." On top of that, a paint contractor donated paint so that the Chalk Hill building will look "exactly the way Sandy Hook does."

Al Barbarotta, the owner of AFB Construction, is helping move the elementary school’s furniture to the new building.

Barbarotta said he worked with Vavrek and Robinson Saturday on scouting out Chalk Hill as a potential site after getting a call asking for his help from Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education’s office.

"Instantly, on Saturday, we started bringing in cleaning crews and moving crews to get the furniture out," Barbarotta said.

In going into Sandy Hook to retrieve the furniture and other belongings, Barbarotta said he saw some very difficult things. "I’ve seen things I don’t even really want to talk about," he said. "There’s markings on the floor. There’s blood everywhere. You can see the broken windows in the classroom in the whole area where the shooting took place."

To keep the crime scene at the school uncompromised, Barbarotta said his crews built plywood partitions isolating the scene.

"Our job is to facilitate a move and get those kids back in a building where they can start bringing back the normalcy in their lives," Barbarotta said.

At several points Tuesday, moving trucks with police escorts could be seen moving back and forth between Sandy Hook and Chalk Hill.

Across Fan Hill Road from the entranceway to the Chalk Hill School, on a white picket fence, a green banner with white lettering read, "Welcome Sandy Hook Elementary," echoing the sentiments of many signs on the 20-minute drive from Sandy Hook Elementary to the Chalk Hill School.

In the early afternoon, crews from AT&T could be seen working on telephone poles on the street outside the school. Verizon also reportedly constructed a tower to provide better phone service for teachers and staff at the Chalk Hill site, where it was spotty.

A Newtown police officer was posted at the entranceway to the Chalk Hill School, his car parked next to a road barrier. He spoke to each driver before letting them drive up to the school.

Vavrek said security measures will be markedly stepped up when the Sandy Hook students do go back to school. "I can tell you, internally, that school will be the safest school in the country," Vavrek said. "The level of expertise that’s in that school now is state of the art in what is essentially a 1959 building."

Lt. Brian McAuley, of the Monroe Police, said he obviously couldn’t detail exactly what they’ll be doing to provide security for the Sandy Hook students and staff, but their presence will be decidedly stepped up.

"What we will be doing is upping our staff for the first couple of weeks while the students get used to their surroundings," McAuley said.

The Monroe Police will be coordinating with the Newtown Police for security.

"The students are familiar with Newtown Police," McAuley said. "They don’t know us. We want to make them as comfortable as we can."

That spirit of kindness could be seen coming from far beyond Connecticut’s borders. At least $1.35 million had been donated as of late Tuesday to create a fund for families affected by Friday’s shooting.

Fawn Hollow Elementary School stands closest to the road with Chalk Hill set back behind it. Vavrek said teachers there have already begun collaborating with Sandy Hook’s teachers on what could be done now that they’ll be neighbors. McAuley said police presence also will be stepped up there.

Adam Poulisse and Ebony Walmsley contributed to this report.