The students of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., returned to class Thursday for the first time since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in a mass shooting last month.

From now on, the students will attend a refurbished school in the neighbouring town of Monroe, since theNewtown school is still being treated as a crime scene.

The Monroe school has been renovated to look almost identical to Sandy Hook and has even been given the same name.

School officials said they did everything to keep the children’s surroundings as familiar as possible.

Most of the students found their same desks and chairs, as well as backpacks and school supplies they left behind after the shooting. The walls were painted the same colours and adorned with the same artwork. Even the placement of crayons has been carefully planned to replicate the way things were done at the former school.  

But even though great efforts were made to create a sense of normalcy for the students, the school was surrounded by police officers.

Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who specializes in trauma, said it's important that board officials and school staff minimize the sense of shock for students who have already dealt with such intense trauma in recent weeks.

But she said there's a fine line between helping students feel comfortable and safe in a familiar environment and recreating the exact scene of the horrific tragedy many of them witnessed first-hand.

"I know they've tried to make the school very familiar, almost the same as the previous one. It's a bit tricky because on the one hand it can really help to provide a strong sense of familiarity which then can help to alleviate anxiety and therefore work better towards adjustment. But on the other hand it's a strong reminder of the tragedy and the losses," Kamkar told CTV's Canada AM.

The last thing school board officials want to do, she said, is traumatize students by replicating the scene of the horrific shooting.

"I think at this time what is very important is for really everyone to be provided with a strong sense of security, connectedness, hope and calmness," she said.

No matter what precautions are taken, it's likely that students will experience a range of emotions as they return to school, from sadness and anxiety to anger and fear for their safety, she said.

Students and teachers who lived through the shooting could also experience more severe symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks, which are common to survivors of trauma.

And symptoms of avoidance are also common among those dealing with post-traumatic stress, Kamkar said. In many cases, people will appear emotionally detached or will intentionally avoid any reminders of the trauma or activities that used to give them joy.

In many cases they will have difficulty sleeping, be more irritable than usual and have feelings of anger or hyper-vigilance, feeling constantly on guard and fearful.

Kamkar said those emotions are normal and healthy for people who have experienced trauma, regardless of their age. However, if those symptoms increase over time and begin to interfere with day-to-day activities, professional help should be sought, she said.

Police have still not revealed a motive behind the deadly shooting, which began on Dec. 14, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary, killing 20 students and six staff, before turning the gun on himself. Prior to the attack, he had shot and killed his mother at their family home.

With files from The Associated Press