Ben Martin Elementary School suffered about $5.2 million in damage after a cluster of tornadoes ripped across central and eastern North Carolina on April 16.
Parts of the school's roof were ripped off, and heavy rains soaked everything inside, forcing students to finish out the remainder of the school year at other schools.
"I was praying, and I prayed. The reality of it for us is that we really didn't think it was going to happen this soon," Principal Crystal Brown said Thursday.
School administrators anticipated that the school would reopen in December, but contractors quickly worked to replace all of the windows and repair walls to get the school ready to open Thursday. In addition, they put in new flooring and fire alarms.
"We would not be able to be back in the building today if it weren’t for their hard work and dedication, not only to their job, but to the students," Brown said. "It means a lot."
Brown said she hopes the facelift will help bring some closure for staff and students, many who had their homes damaged or destroyed by the tornado.
"We've had about 10 percent of our students who had to actually leave their homes for some reason," she said. "From the faces (of students and parents) yesterday at the open house … and even the comments they’ve given us, they said they are so happy that we’re able to be back home."
As of the first day of school, about 480 students were enrolled, she said. The number is down from 615 last spring, but Brown said that she expects the number to rise as more students, including pre-kindergarteners, enroll.
Students said the first day back at school marks a new beginning.
"It feels good. It's different," fifth-grader Jaalien Parker said. "I never thought it would be this quick to get the school back together with how much damage there was."
Cale Brown agreed.
"It's really good to be back," she said.