CHAMPAIGN — As students return to class Monday following last week's deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, Champaign officials say they are reviewing their evacuation and safety plans with school staffs and taking their roles very seriously.
Community members lit candles on Sunday night while Champaign school board member Jamar Brown read victims' names and ages — most of them 6 years old — in Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
The service at Jericho Missionary Baptist Church was an opportunity for the community to come together around the tragedy, attendees said.
Champaign school Superintendent Judy Wiegand said she was "numb" when she first heard about the shootings that left 20 children and eight adults dead, including the shooter and his mother. School officials have been preparing over the weekend for the students' return to class.
"Many of us, perhaps most of us, there is the awkward sense of personal vulnerability," Wiegand told attendees of Sunday night's vigil. "We have or know of children who get up every day and go to school. This tragedy strikes a personal chord with parents everywhere."
Champaign city officials attended the Sunday night gathering as well, and Brown said school administrators will be working with principals and police and fire officials to ensure that good evacuation and safety plans are in place.
Wiegand said she is confident in those plans, but there is always room to go over them again. Counseling services will be available for anyone who needs them, Wiegand said, and any parents with concerns should feel free to contact her or a principal.
"We'll be cognizant of those concerns, emotions and those fears that they (students) may have, take the time to reassure them that the school is a safe place and remind them that there are plans in place to protect them," Wiegand said.
As far as Sunday night's vigil, organizers said it was a sign that the shooting has resonated locally.
"It shows that we have concern and have been affected by those who have gone through that kind of tragedy," said Jericho Pastor Lekevie Johnson.
Attendees agreed that the shooting was "senseless" and that it is impossible to understand why it happened.
"It's kids," said Urbana resident Judy Conerly. "It's human beings' lives that's been taken."
Conerly said the vigil made her sad but reminded her of her belief in a higher power. Candles in hand, community members were led in prayer asking for relief for victims' families and for the safety of Champaign-Urbana children.
"There's very little you can do for those families except pray," Conerly said.
Brown said the vigil made him feel hopeful, as rain threatened and chilly temperatures persisted, that community members were willing to leave the warmth of their homes to support each other and the victims in Friday's shooting.
"It wasn't for themselves," Brown said.