MOORE — Amy Shipman and her daughter put on a happy face for the first day of school in Moore on Friday, but it didn't take long for their emotions to bubble to the surface.
“I don't like it. I want to be in the Old Plaza Towers,” 7-year-old Kenzi Shipman blurted out as she approached the junior high that will be her elementary school's temporary home for the coming year. “I'm gonna try (to like it), but I don't feel very good about it.”
The powerful May 20 tornado stole the home Amy Shipman shared with her husband and daughter. The family was spared, but Kenzi's nearby elementary school — Plaza Towers — was leveled and seven students killed, including five she knew.
“I think everybody's overwhelmed,” said Amy Shipman, a mental health therapist who drove to Moore from her new home near Oklahoma City Community College.
A tear rolled down her cheek.
“It's going to be a good day,” she said. “These are tears of joy.”
Mixed emotions marked the first day of school across the district, where students and teachers were reunited for the first time since the twister caused $55 million worth of damage to 23 of 36 campuses and ended the school year prematurely.
“For some of them, it was more of a struggle than for others,” Moore Public Schools spokesman Jimi Fleming said. “For us, this was the beginning of our moving forward, and that's what we've been shooting for all along.”
Down the road at Emmaus Baptist Church, enthusiastic Briarwood Elementary School teachers and administrators welcomed back excited students and anxious parents with big hugs and broad smiles.
“I'm, like, freaking out,” parent Ashley Sandoval said.
“The last time my daughter went to school, she was in a tornado.”
Jordyn Sandoval, 8, was pulled from the Briarwood rubble by first responders. Her teacher helped protect her as classroom walls came down around her.
Jordyn, sporting shiny black slip-ons and a stylish pink tote, said she was happy to be back in school “cuz I get to see my friends again and make my brain get more smart.”
Like Plaza Towers, Briarwood was destroyed by the EF5 tornado, but no one was seriously hurt. Both schools will be rebuilt in time for the start of school in 2014, district officials said.
Extra counselors and therapy dogs were used Friday to help parents, students, even teachers, cope.
“I want them to feel like they can trust us with their kids, and they'll be safe,” Briarwood Principal Shelley Jaques-McMillin said, surrounded by hundreds of students gathered inside the expansive church to wait for their classroom assignments.
“Were going to be a lot more tolerant because everybody is handling the situation differently, even the teachers are, they're just as nervous coming back,” she said.
Jaques-McMillin said 567 students were enrolled at Briarwood, down from 675, but far more than the 400 district officials expected.
The principal invited parents to stay as long as they needed to comfort their children, who were greeted by upbeat music and Thunder mascot Rumble the Bison.
“I want it to be a safe place again because when they left, that was shattered,” she said.
Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson greeted parents and embraced students as they made their way toward a remodeled building on the campus of Central Junior High School.
She expected there to be more stress and anxiety that the first day back usually generates.
“We're in a new place. That is what's going to be different about it,” Simpson said. “I think that students are resilient and they're excited about school. “There is still some apprehension because of the last time they were with us, the fear that school may have put into their minds.”
Highland East Junior High School also opened for business Friday, a day after workers tarred the roof and continued to make fixes to the heavily damaged campus.
The EF5 tornado wiped out the school's gym, tech room and several portable rooms, and did significant damage to the roof. Subsequent storms flooded classrooms.
“The building is functional but is still in need of a lot of repairs,” Fleming said. “But they're making it work, which is the best part.”