(CNN) — Survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday, hoping to restore a sense of normalcy after a former student stormed the hallways with an assault-style rifle, killing 17 people.
Students were dismissed at 11:40 a.m. after a day of mixed emotions. Administrators hope to ease students back into a routine with a shortened four-hour class schedule this week.
Students walked into a school filled with grief counselors, comfort dogs and posters with encouraging messages such as, “We get courage from each other.”
To honor those lost in the shooting, the day began with 17 seconds of silence and 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, students are contending with how to balance school with activism, sophomore Tanzil Philip said. But the movement continues, with students planning to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss rallies set for March 24.
“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,” Philip said.
‘This is now the safest school in America’
From the day’s start it was clear things would be anything but normal. Students encountered a campus swarming with media, law enforcement officers and flashing patrol cars, and well-wishers passing out flowers.
“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 as she sat in her car, waiting in a long line of traffic to enter the school parking lot.
Many students and parents expressed apprehension about returning to scene of the tragedy. 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, but it’s still hard.
“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.”
‘We got through it together’
For many students, it was cathartic to reunite with friends and teachers they had not seen in two weeks, senior Demetri Hoth said. Some wanted to dive straight into classes, but many more preferred to take it slowly, he said.
“Our minds aren’t there yet to talk about math and statistics and science,” Hoth said.
Teachers made the transition easier by asking how they wanted to proceed, Hoth said. “I think we’re still not sure yet.”
In his 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.
To lighten the mood, teachers passed out comforting items such as Play-Doh and coloring books, said Garrity, who received a stuffed bunny she named Quincy.
The night before, Garrity video-chatted with friends to ease their nerves. Her fellow drama club member, Isabela Barry, played her guitar. Since the shooting, Barry has had trouble sleeping in the dark. To alleviate anxiety, the two had “a virtual sleepover” Tuesday night, leaving their computer cameras on as they slept.
The girls met outside the school and walked in together with their friend Ashley Paseltiner. By the day’s end, the girls said the sense of community lifted their spirits.
“We got through it together,” Paseltiner said. “We’ve just got to keep going, remember the people that we lost and make the most of what we have here.”
School board considers tearing down Building 12
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.
Like many students, Hannah Karcinell wore an “MSD Strong” shirt to signify her intention to move 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 in Parkland 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 in state law on weapons and other issues survivors and victims’ families have asked for. 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.