(CNN) -- Wednesday is the start of the school year for students in Joplin, Missouri, a bittersweet time for a town still rebuilding from a tornado in May that killed more than 130 people.
For Joplin's 2,200 high school students, it means a split. Ninth and 10th-graders will go to an existing middle school, while upperclassmen will attend classes at a mall.
Officials say it was the only place big enough. The school district spent $5.5 million to convert a 95,000-square-foot retail facility.
"Every time I drive by it, it's still really sad," said senior Lydia McAllister, looking at what's left of Joplin High School -- one of 10 school buildings damaged or destroyed by the storm. "All the memories and all the friends that I made in these hallways."
Fellow senior Yainer Oviedo echoed the sense of loss.
"Sad knowing that you won't be able to spend your last year of high school here," he said.
The May 22 tornado that devastated large sections of Joplin cut a path of destruction nearly 14 miles long -- seven miles of which were in city limits -- and up to one mile wide.
The EF-5 tornado barreled into the city of 50,000 people with 200-mph winds, reducing homes, businesses and schools to unrecognizable rubble.
More than 130 people died in the storm. The Joplin tornado was the deadliest single U.S. twister in more than 60 years, according to National Weather Service records.
School officials had to quickly scramble over the summer to come up with enough classrooms.
"That next morning (after the storm) we came to the realization we had 54% of our kids who had no place to go, about 4,200 out of 7,747," said C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin Schools.
CNN's Shannon Travis contributed to this report.