For students in tornado-ravaged town, back-to-school will be ‘new normal’

An aerial view (top) shows Briarwood Elementary the day after a massive tornado stuck Moore, Okla. A portion of Emmaus Baptist Church (bottom) in Moore is now acting as home to the Briarwood Elementary students.

MOORE, Okla. — Students heading back to the classroom on Friday nearly three months after a massive tornado destroyed their schools will find a "new normal," their superintendent says, with some pupils attending classes in a church and others in a building loaned by a junior high.

Two elementary schools — Plaza Towers and Briarwood — were leveled in the May 20 twister, a rare high intensity storm that claimed 25 lives, including those of seven third-grade students who were hunkered down with their teacher.

“If you would have asked me, would we still be standing here today, I would have had my doubts,” Supt. Robert Romines said Monday. 

“We are faced with a new normal. That new normal is about moving forward, rebuilding and doing what we need to do for this community, with the understanding that we won’t forget May 20.”

Immediately after the disaster, Romines and other school officials were determined that class would be back in session on Friday, Aug. 16. Their first task: Finding sites to house students for one year while their devastated schools are rebuilt at their old locations with tornado-proof safe rooms.

Within days, helping hands were extended. Officials at Moore’s Central Junior High School agreed to give up a building for Plaza Towers students. That has required constructing new classrooms, administrative offices and a teacher’s lounge.

Destroyed vehicles (top) lie in the rubble outside the Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla May 21, 2013 after the school was destroyed by a massive tornado May 20. Plaza Towers Elementary staff has been relocated to a building at the Junior High (bottom) as they await reconstruction of their school.

Across town, Emmaus Baptist Church offered to open its doors to Briarwood students.

To prepare, the church has converted Sunday school classrooms that hundreds of parishioners fill weekly into rooms for teachers and students.

At the junior high school, teachers could be seen last week cutting out decorations for the classroom walls, and walking amid desks — provided for free by a nearby school district — topped with donated backpacks and other supplies.

“I have a little bit of anxiety … having the kids who lost their classmates,” said fourth grade Plaza Towers teacher Kimberly Martinez, who said she became emotional when she received her roster of incoming students on Friday and the names of the deceased pupils were missing.

In the aftermath of a similar-intensity tornado that leveled an elementary school in Moore in 1999, in which no one was hurt, students and teachers dispersed through the district. “It’s nice to be able to stay together,” Martinez, 26, said. “I feel like we have this special bond."

Enrollment for the two schools has dropped about 10 percent, or 150 students, Romines said, with many kids having to move away after their homes were destroyed. But they’ve suspended the district transfer policy so those students can return.

Briarwood Elementary School librarian Teresa Schroeder sets up her new library in a hallway at Emmaus Baptist Church in Moore, OK, on Friday, August 9, 2013. Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

At Emmaus Baptist Church, teachers have worked to fit desks, cubby holes and supply shelves into tiny Sunday school classrooms. In a large vaulted room, one teacher said she would share the space with another instructor, so they have decided to make the best of it by team teaching. A physical education teacher will lead his classes in a chapel.

Associate Pastor Jim Lehew said Emmaus wanted to come “alongside” the community to help. The church is letting the school use the space for free.

“What this provides is a place for them to all to be together,” he said.

“Is it ideal? Probably not,” but, he later added, “it would be a greater tragedy for us not to open our doors.”

As librarian Teresa Schroeder, 53, stocked her shelves in a hallway of the church, she cried while talking about the aftermath of the tornado and finding the cart — which she identified by its bar code — where Briarwood students would scan and check out their books. She bought a new Eeyore doll, which used to sit next to the scanner, to make it look like the familiar setup.

“It’s definitely different,” she said, describing how she procured all of the encyclopedias, series books, and Newbery and Caldecott winners for her makeshift library. “But we’re going to make it.”