Piper Gutzler’s fourth-grade desk – its nameplate firmly in place – sits vacant in her Nashville Grade School classroom this week. Her locker, its door left open to friends and classmates sadly filing past in the corridor, is filled with notes and drawings.
After Piper, 9, died Friday in the plane crash that killed her parents and cousin – but that her little sister, Sailor, 7, somehow survived – officials at the small elementary school in Nashville, Illinois, thought long and hard about how to help students and faculty with their grief, Superintendent Michael Brink tells PEOPLE.
“Do we leave the desk in there or not? That was a major discussion,” Brink tells PEOPLE for the new issue. “At the end of the day, we felt it was important to offer the kids the opportunity to write Piper a letter or draw her a picture and actually place it in the desk.”
Others in the small K-8 school of 560 students were invited to leave remembrances in the cardboard box left in Piper’s open locker.
“Most of the kids have partaken,” Brink says. “That’s been pretty therapeutic. It’s something that the counselors had recommended.”
The notes will be given to Piper’s surviving family “when they’re ready to get them,” he added.
Funerals for the four crash victims, who were returning home aboard a small private plane from their New Year’s vacation in Florida, began Wednesday with a service for Piper’s and Sailor’s cousin, 14-year-old Sierra Wilder
A joint private funeral for Piper and her parents is scheduled for Friday morning.
Throughout, grief counselors have been talking with students – in small groups and one-on-one – at the school, Principal Chuck Fairbanks says.
“This is such a small, tight-knit community that every kid knows every kid,” Fairbanks says, describing Piper as “a great kid, full of life.”
“The other kids gravitated toward her,” he adds. “And it’s been rough for the teachers. Just about every teacher … has had either Piper or Sailor in class or dealt with them at recess or in the hallways.”
Monday, the students’ first day back after the holiday break, was a day of mourning – but also of teaching, Fairbanks says.
“Are they doing math and English and social studies? Not necessarily,” he explains. “What they’re doing in their classes, though, may be the most important lesson they teach the kids all year long – just helping them get through this.”
“Truthfully,” Brink says, “it’s going to get worse before it gets better. … We’re all hurting tremendously.”
• Reporting by JEFF TRUESDELL