NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – Richneck Elementary students returned to school Monday, more than three weeks after first -grade teacher Abigail Zwerner was shot in her classroom by a 6-year-old.
Teachers and friendly signs, as well as police officers and metal detectors, welcomed the kids back. Some parents walked their children into their classrooms, and some gave them kisses and waved goodbye at the front door.
Jordan Vestre, who was dropping off his third -grade son, said he was a little apprehensive.
“I’m just glad they’ve taken the steps they have to improve the security,” he said. “I feel like there’s a lot more they can do, but I feel like it’s going in the right direction now.”
Vestre and his son attended the back-to-school night Richneck held last week, and he said it helped prepare him for the reopening.
“He had a lot of fun, saw some friends, played some games,” Vestre said.
Other parents also said last week’s open house made them feel comfortable bringing their children back. Many parents declined to speak to the media, and a few expressed a hope that their children’s lives would return to a sense of normalcy.
School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law and Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones, along with other members of the school board, city council and the police and fire chief, were at Richneck to welcome back teachers and students.
“I walked the building a little while ago, and they are very excited to welcome their students,” Surles-Law said about the teachers. She said she thanked them for their work getting ready for the reopening.
“Thank you for carrying on the great work that we’re doing here,” she said.
Surles-Law said the metal detectors are in place, and therapy dogs will be in all first -grade classrooms Monday. Additionally, all classrooms now have doors installed. The original design of the building had an open concept that left some classrooms without doors.
Parents were permitted to walk their students to their classrooms on Monday to ease any separation anxiety.
“We’re pretty much considering it like the first day of kindergarten for all students,” she said.
Surles-Law added that most students were smiling and happy to be back with friends.
“I think some feel the anxiety from their parents, but as soon as they’re walking in that building by themselves they’re in familiar ground,” she said.
The students who were in Zwerner’s class returned to a new classroom, Surles-Law said.
“The community came together to paint it and to put familiar things in that room and to make it very welcoming as a new place and a new start for them for this school year,” she said.
Police have said that a 6-year-old child in Zwerner’s class shot her while she was teaching on the afternoon of Jan. 6. Since then, school officials have said the student’s backpack was searched earlier that day after reports surfaced that he had a gun. Zwerner’s attorney last week claimed administrators were warned at least three times that the child had a gun, and that an administrator refused to allow a staff member to search the boy after a report that the gun may be in his pocket. Zwerner’s attorney has said she intends to file a lawsuit against the school division.
On Monday, Jones said Newport News is a strong community.
“And we’re here united, we’re here to welcome back our kids,” he said. “Newport News, it’s a great place to live. We’re excited to welcome the children back. And we’re standing here together as one team.”
Tracey DeBrew, a minister at Restoration and Faith Kingdom Builders, was also at Richneck on Monday.
“I felt it was very important that they saw community love and other faces besides just the police,” DeBrew said. “We need to come together as a neighborhood and start showing these children love.”
DeBrew said most of the students she saw seemed cheerful and happy to be back with their friends.
“It’s time for normalcy for these children,” she said.