When Sarah Lerner walked into her classroom on Friday, she felt like time had stood still.
Abandoned quizzes sat on her students’ desks. Their backpacks were scattered around the room and cell phones plugged into electrical outlets. The date was still on the board: Feb. 14.
It was the first time she’d been to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since that day, when she sheltered 15 students from a shooter who opened fire in the hallways. Seventeen people died, and more than a dozen others were injured.
“I started to have, like, a panic attack or an anxiety attack, and I … felt like I couldn’t breathe,” said Lerner, who teaches English and journalism and is the yearbook advisor. “I just walked out. I couldn’t stay anymore.”
She said she was relieved she was able to process her emotions privately, before she had to face her students.
“I want to be able to be the leader in my classroom,” she said. “I want to be the strong one for them, so that we’re not all falling apart at the same time.”
To the rest of the country, the Parkland tragedy seems like a turning point, an event that has advanced the contentious gun debate in a way that’s never been seen after a mass shooting.
But while President Donald Trump in Washington and state lawmakers in Tallahassee grapple with proposals to arm teachers or raise the age limits for buying guns, the school’s students and staff are preparing for a long recovery.
It starts with going back.
Lerner and the rest of the Broward County high school’s staff had the option of returning to campus on Friday. Students and their families followed for an orientation — dubbed a “reunification” — on Sunday. And now, teachers will plan for a couple of days before classes resume.
Lerner won’t be staying in her classroom after all.
The master schedule has been reworked so students and teachers don’t have to go back into Building 12, where the massacre took place. Lerner’s classroom is in a different building, but it’s big, so it’s getting reassigned to two other teachers.
And Lerner will be moving in with Melissa Falkowski, another English teacher who oversees the school newspaper. Falkowski expects it won’t be too difficult for the yearbook and newspaper kids to meet at the same time, since they’ll be telling the same story.
The colleagues agree, it’ll probably be a while before there’s a whole lot of teaching going on.
“The kids have to be supported emotionally first,” Falkowski said. “If they’re not emotionally equipped, not present in their minds, because they’re dealing with their grief and their other issues, then it doesn’t really matter if you’re teaching or not.”
Lerner said it’s okay with her if they have to take it slow.
“If I don’t get to finish ‘1984,’ if I don’t get to read ‘Macbeth’ with them, life will go on,” she said.
Life went on for the students survivors of the shooting on Sunday, as hundreds of kids and their families flowed in and out of the school. There was a lot of hugging. Some students picked up their backpacks. Others walked out with heart-shaped balloons and large stuffed bears that said, “be mine” — the remnants of a Valentine’s Day that began normally but ended with bullets.
“It’s just weird, like, to be back here. It doesn’t seem like the same school,” freshman Gabby Coelho said.
Coelho was in Building 12 during the shooting, and like so many of her peers, she saw the bodies of her slain classmates in the hallways.
Some of the students have said they’re struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Broward County schools superintendent Robert Runcie tweeted on Sunday imploring members of the media not to fly over the school in helicopters, which could trigger feelings of panic.
When Coelho was back inside, she leaned on her mom, Donna, for support.
“I’m with my mom and my friends. It’s not like being alone and going through it again,” Coelho said.
Donna said her daughter is a straight-A student, but she worries about how she’ll get through the rest of the school year.
“How do you sit there and concentrate when that’s what you were doing before the kids heard the gunshots?” Donna Coelho said.
When the mother-daughter duo emerged from the orientation, they smiled at each other. They said it was therapeutic.
“It was … okay. It was okay. It was okay,” Donna Coelho said, considering her response.
“How was it for you?” she asked her daughter.
“It made me feel a little better,” Gabby Coelho said.