Uvalde kids go back to the classroom this week. These parents chose other options
The first thing you see when you walk through Yuri De Luna’s front door these days is a blue air mattress leaning against a wall at the entrance. It’s for her 11-year old son, Eloyd.
“He’s scared of windows. His bed’s high, so he won’t sleep in his room,” she says, citing his recent fears of a gunman attacking while he sleeps.
Some days Eloyd covers the windows of their home with blankets. “I don’t know how a blanket would protect [from] a bullet,” Yuri says, letting out a laugh tinged with sorrow. “But, you know, it’s just whatever makes him feel comfortable.”
Yuri says those are some of the ways her son has changed since the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in May. While Eloyd didn’t attend Robb last year, he had gone there in previous years.
This week, as in-person classes resume for the first time since the shooting, Yuri has already chosen to homeschool Eloyd and his 12-year-old brother, Emmanuel, for the time being. And she’s not alone.
Uvalde resident and a former local teacher-turned-tutor, Deyanira Salazar, says while she’s seen her students show emotional improvement since the initial shock of the shooting, she’s not sure what can really prepare anyone for this new school year.
“I hear it from parents, I hear it from the students, and I hear it from the teachers, that they’re not ready,” she says.
How to teach Uvalde’s children after a mass shooting
At a recent community meeting in town led by a group called “Uvalde Strong for Gun Safety,” heated conversations buzz about holding the school district accountable for safety, whether to send children back into classrooms, and gun-control legislation. Local organizer and pediatrician Roy Guerrero-Jaramillo has succinct advice for parents: “If you do not feel that your child is safe going to school in the fall, then do not send them.”
Tina Quintanilla-Taylor, a parent and organizer leading the meeting, nods in agreement as Guerrero-Jaramillo speaks. Having known someone who was able to scale a newly-erected security fence at one local school, she is adamant that the school district has not done enough to inspire confidence in sending her children back to school.
Many who spoke to NPR in Uvalde are in support of the fences going up around public schools, the hundreds of new security cameras on their way, updated locks, and other safety measures the school district is in the process of implementing. But Tina wants more. “For my children to feel safe and for our voices to be heard, I feel that it’s safe to say that we need a school and we need it now,” she says.
Robb Elementary will eventually be demolished and a new school is set to be built, although the district has not yet determined a timeline for these plans. But Tina points out that a majority of property taxes in Uvalde go to the school district – in her case, 43% of her property tax bill. “So I would like to see where our money has gone for a long time,” she says.
Reservations about homeschooling
A few days after that community meeting, Tina puzzles over a stack of school forms in her living room, knowing she’ll have to make a choice between her son’s best educational options and his safety.
“He is on the autism spectrum. He has global development delay, sensory processing disorder, and he’s deaf in his left ear,” she says.
Some of the private schools Tina is considering for her 6-year-old, Winston, won’t offer the individualized services he needs – so she’d have to pay for them out of pocket. But her decision about how to school her 9-year-old daughter, Mehle, this year was more clear cut: By the end of August she had already started virtual classes through a homeschooling program.
At the end of a recent school day, Tina asked her daughter how it went. “She said, ‘I love it. My classmates are so cool, and my teacher’s so cool,”’ Tina relays. “But she misses her friends.”
Mehle, a former Robb student, is also grieving some friends who died in the shooting, including Rojelio Torres. “He was on my bus and he loved Pokémon,” she says, unfolding a picture she had drawn of him. “He [wore] this jacket every single day on the bus … and then he would wear these shoes matching his jacket,” she explains, pointing to the patterns she’d drawn on Rojelio’s outfit. “I tried my best,” she trails off, as she looks down at the drawing.
Tina says she hasn’t told her daughter the gruesome details of what happened to her friends at Robb, but that Mehle understands many of her friends are gone for good.
When asked whether she wants to eventually return to school in-person, Mehle says she isn’t sure. As for her friends, Mehle said, “I would tell them not to go to school. And to have online school, like me, a homeschool.”
Still, Tina has her reservations about homeschooling. When her kids were forced to do virtual learning in the early years of the coronavirus pandemic, she says they struggled with learning. “So they’re very far behind already, and then this shooting happened, and it’s setting them back even further.”
The financial burden of a difficult choice
A few miles away, on the west side of town, Yuri De Luna has been facing similar predicaments.
Her sons attended Flores Elementary this past school year, which also locked down the day of the shooting at Robb. Yuri says 11-year-old Eloyd has remained upset thinking about his former fourth grade teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles – the two teachers who were killed in the massacre. Yuri recalls taking the boys to a toy drive for surviving kids, and Eloyd’s response: “It’s not going to bring my teachers back.”
Since then, however, Yuri says the experience had also strengthened Eloyd’s long-held dream of becoming a police officer – especially since learning about the widely-criticized law enforcement response at Robb.
“He thought, ‘Now I really want to be a cop. I want to do what they didn’t do,'” she says.
Yuri quit her job in order to help homeschool her sons, who are also using the same K12 program as Mehle Taylor. “We’ve always been a two-income family. It was kind of rocky. And my husband decided to put in other applications,” she says. “Luckily, he found a better-paying job.”
The boys have had to give up some things while the family recalibrates their new financial situation. “My Emmanuel, he [sold] hot wing plates to earn money. The other week he did nachos and sodas … you know, to make money to buy himself his games,” Yuri says.
Yuri was also initially concerned about Emmanuel and Eloyd losing individualized services at school as they both have learning disabilities. She feels supported through the K12 program, but hopes they can eventually get in-person occupational therapy through the school district.
At the moment, she says there’s nothing the school district can do to make her feel safe enough to send her kids to school — it’s actions she wants to see. And she hopes Emmanuel and Eloyd will eventually go back to a school campus. “I want them to be social. I want them to experience everything I had,” Yuri says.
The boys see the bright side of homeschooling. They have just finished their second day of school and are hanging out in Emmanuel’s bedroom, both clicking away on their computers. Eloyd says he prefers the current homeschooling arrangement to in-person school because there aren’t any lockdowns. He’s looking forward to science experiments this year.
His brother Emmanuel chimes in: “And I really like it because you could be in your room, and you can actually choose what you want to eat.” Namely, their mother’s home cooking.
For now, both households are taking school, and their changed, new lives, one day at a time. Tina and Yuri’s hopes for their children are simple: normalcy, fun, and a safe school year ahead.