By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript
MOORE — Three months after an EF-5 tornado demolished their school, students, faculty and staff of Plaza Towers Elementary are days into their new school year, and offices like Principal Amy Simpson’s reflect an atmosphere of newness and resolute positivity.
Amid boxes and frames yet-to-be-hung, a plaque reading “Life isn’t about surviving the storm, but learning to dance in the rain” is prominently displayed on a bookshelf.
“Now that school has started, I think everyone is exhaling and taking a deep breath,” Simpson said Wednesday. “Learning the flow and getting settled is part of every new school year, it’s just more compounded this year in a new setting.”
Plaza’s temporary facility is a free-standing building on the Central Junior High School campus, closely adjacent to the main building housing the junior high’s classes.
For a community that has shrunk from 500 to 350 students, with more than half of those students’ families experiencing severe losses May 20, the autonomous setup provides some sense of normalcy with a few added perks.
“The kids are in hog heaven with lunch because middle school lunch has a menu and they can order different things like slushies — they love it,” Simpson said, smiling. “We were in a 46-year-old building and now everything is brand new; it has a new-building smell and books and supplies are new, too, and everybody — especially the kids — loves new stuff.”
Additionally, closeness to Central Junior High will provide the Plaza community with a supportive academic and emotional resource, eliminating any sense of isolation as Plaza moves forward.
“I’m excited about potential academic partnerships between our two schools, like inviting junior high students over for reading groups,” Simpson said. “I think Plaza students could benefit from the social and emotional support of older peers and the junior high students could benefit from the service.”
Although social support has been abundant for Plaza students, Simpson and her staff anticipate an ongoing need for extra special care as students return to the setting in which they experienced a fatal disaster.
“We’ve had an extra counselor on staff every day, and luckily the weather has been nice, so we haven’t experienced the trauma that could come with that,” Simpson said. “Many parents indicated to me that rain, wind or even cloudy skies make their children very anxious.”
Additionally, Simpson said teachers will experience similar anxieties in themselves, and she is concerned about what practicing fire, tornado and lockdown drills will look like with a school that is still healing.
“We have a fire drill with the middle school next week and I’m anxious about that. At the old Plaza, we would announce a fire drill over the intercom before sounding the alarm, but with the middle school, it’ll be just the alarms,” she said. “It’s important for us to practice that, but I think kids will be very anxious. We’ll have extra counselors on standby that day to observe and aid teachers with kids who need attention.”
Acclimating students and teachers to new emergency procedures will be a top priority for Simpson as a method of minimizing inevitable fears and making students feel as safe as possible in an unfamiliar setting.
“Traditionally, fire drills are once a month, tornado drills and lockdown are once or twice a semester. As we move into a this new building with me not knowing it, teachers not knowing it and kids not knowing it, we’re going to have to practice a lot more, which could cause a lot of anxiety, but we have to practice and practice doing these procedures in case of the real thing,” she said.
Simpson hasn’t yet marked a date for Plaza’s first tornado drill but knows the plan will involve evacuating the building in which the elementary is housed to shelter inside Central Junior High’s main building. She said she hopes to practice this multiple times each month in the afternoon hour when Central students have been dismissed and Plaza students are still in class.
Overall, faculty, staff and community members are making adaptations and moving forward an occasion to dance in the rain rather than just survive.
“Kids understand a lot more than we know. They’ll say in passing, ‘I’m glad you didn’t get hurt in the tornado,’ so they understand me or anyone else could have lost their life in the tornado, but they just say that and then move on,” Simpson said.
“Yesterday (Aug. 20), we had the parents of the seven students who were lost here, handing out Shelter Oklahoma Schools shirts to any student that wanted one. We didn’t say to them ‘this is the three-month anniversary;’ we made it more a celebration of getting free shirts with their friends’ names on the back, for them to wear with pride.”