Stephen P. Grill, the principal of a public school in Belle Harbor, Queens, strode down an auditorium aisle on Tuesday morning, past chairs that had been submerged by floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy and police tape that was blocking a back door. He stood in front of a wall obscuring a badly damaged stage.
"All I can say right now is, welcome back everybody," he said loudly over a sea of Hello Kitty and superhero backpacks. "We're all one big, happy family, and now we're back together at 114."
But not everyone was feeling so rosy about the first day back at Public School/Middle School 114. The storm had battered Belle Harbor and left the building with a floorless gym and a middle school that remained shuttered because it reeks of sewage.
"What are we doing here?" said one teacher, who was fighting back tears and declined to give her name for fear that she would be fired. "The custodian told me they didn't pass the air-quality test, and my room smells."
When the New York City Education Department announced on Monday that P.S./M.S. 114 would open three days earlier than expected, a stew of emotions erupted in private conversations and on the school's Facebook page, parents said. Was the building safe, and had the air quality been properly tested? Some parents expressed concern that the Education Department was rushing to open the school.
"It's nerve-racking," said Maureen Colon, who walked out of the building crying after dropping off her son, who is in the second grade. "Friday, they were pulling out sopping-wet cartons. And Tuesday, they are back?"
"There's been so little communication, it's scary," she added.
That nerves are frayed and emotions fraught is not surprising. Many families at the school have lost their homes and have endured several relocations while grappling with the emotional aftermath of a devastating storm that many watched in the dark alongside their frightened children. They want the routines and familiar comforts of school.
But a significant percentage opted not to return until they had further assurances that the air their children would breathe was safe. Before the storm, the school enrolled 779 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. On Tuesday, 55.1 percent of the students attended school.
"I don't see what the rush is," said Christine Charles, whose two children are now attending Public School 207 in Brooklyn. "I think the D.O.E. wants to get out there and say, 'We opened it in a month.'"
Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that on Saturday officials tested relative humidity, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, among other things at the school.
"There were 26 sets of measurement taken throughout the school building," Ms. Feinberg said, adding that the results showed the air quality was acceptable. "We're happy to share the information with parents, and we will reach out to the principal about arranging a meeting."
Some parents defended the decision to reopen the school and reveled in the chance to be back with familiar faces. "I am thrilled, to put it mildly," said Kristine Memoli, whose three children had just entered the school. "Thank God our kids are having some kind of routine."
Mr. Grill said that to characterize his school's communication as poor would be unfair since he, too, received very little information from the Education Department.
"We only knew as fast as they knew," he said, referring to parents, adding that the school "banded everyone together with what we had." He added that he was confident the building's air quality was safe because the department had told him as much. "I trust the D.O.E. would not sacrifice anybody," he said.
But many parents who have spent the past four weeks gutting basements and rifling through debris said they remained concerned about mold, asbestos, fiberglass materials and debris that children would bring in off the streets.
"I am a nurse; I don't claim to be a doctor," said Sabina Mills, whose three children attended P.S./M.S. 114 until the storm. "But there are things that can hurt you that you can't see."
Ms. Mills said she would keep her children at P.S. 312 in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, until she saw evidence that the school had successfully passed multiple air-quality tests. Her husband, a firefighter, was involved in the cleanup after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Mills said. "Our elected officials said it was safe for them, and we know how that turned out," she said.
The art on the walls at P.S./M.S. 114 recounts a prestorm era. Personal narratives about a significant event included tales of sharks, goals scored in hockey and a first triple hit in Little League, sweet memories that would no doubt be superseded by tales of watching floodwaters rise and fires burn and dumping a childhood of memories into the trash.
Upstairs, in Classroom 308, teachers asked seventh-grade students what they had learned in the relocated schools they had been attending (square roots, rates and ratios, scientific notation) and what books they had read (none, none and "The Omnivore's Dilemma"). Did they know where their missing classmates were?
"We're not going to see some of our classmates until next year," a teacher said. "Hopefully, they will be back for eighth grade."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.