Updated: March 20, 2012 7:12AM
INDIANAPOLIS — Hundreds of elementary students whose school was heavily damaged by a tornado that left behind open ceilings and pummeled school buses will return to class in temporary space Wednesday, nearly three weeks after the deadly storms.
Counselors will be on hand to comfort the nearly 700 kindergarten through sixth-grade students — some of whose homes were destroyed in the storms — when they arrive Wednesday morning at the Graceland Christian Academy in New Albany, where the West Clark Community Schools have rented space.
John Reed, West Clark’s deputy superintendent, said he expects the day to be somewhat like a first day of school, with the added element of lingering emotions over the storms that killed 13 southern Indiana residents.
“We’re going to give the kids time to talk, to share their stories, share their experiences and just to be with their friends,” he said Monday. “Many of these kids haven’t seen their friends since the storm, so we’re going to go very slowly and carefully and give them time to express themselves.”
Although no students were injured March 2 when a tornado with 175 mph winds heavily damaged the district’s three-school complex in Henryville, Reed said at least a dozen students were displaced after their homes were damaged or destroyed.
Some students’ families have been living with relatives or elsewhere, and some have been staying in recreational vehicles since the storm, but Reed said buses will stop at the same addresses as they did before the storms.
Three of the district’s buses were destroyed, but other districts have loaned West Clark two buses.
The district conducted a test run of the new bus routes for Henryville Elementary School students Monday, with drivers in empty buses completing routes and then heading to the parochial school’s campus in New Albany instead of the shattered schools in Henryville.
“We’ve got our lineup and we’re ready to roll,” Reed said.
The tornado that heavily damaged the three-school complex in Henryville left about 1,200 students, including the 700 elementary students, without classroom space. About 500 middle and high school students who also attended classes at the Henryville complex are scheduled to return to school April 2 at Mid-America Science Park in Scottsburg following the district’s spring break.
Henryville Elementary School Principal Glenn Riggs said the students’ temporary classrooms are located in Graceland Christian Academy’s adult Sunday school building, which church officials use only two days a week.
“It’s a beautiful facility — as displaced educational refugees we couldn’t ask for a better setting,” he joked Monday. “We’re good to go.”
Reed said that over the weekend, hundreds of desks and other school equipment and supplies donated by other districts were delivered at the New Albany building. He said the site will have 30 classrooms — each furnished with at least one iPad and laptop computer — and a computer lab.
He said the district hasn’t finalize its reconstruction plans for the damaged Henryville complex, but officials hope repairs can be made in time for the 1,200 affected students to resume classes there Sept. 1.
The March 2 storms impacted only about a quarter of the district’s students, Reed said. Other district schools where 3,300 other students attend classes were not damaged by the storms.