Uvalde students return to school for the first time since May’s deadly shooting
Tuesday is the first day back to school in Uvalde, Texas since a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in May.
The shooting at Robb Elementary School shook the town and the nation when news of the high death toll first broke, and then again when people learned it took law enforcement more than an hour to confront the shooter.
The return to school is a chance for students to see friends and get back into routines. But it also brings back the fear and trauma for those touched by the tragedy.
Adam and Raquel Martinez have four children and another on the way. Their 8-year-old son Zayon was at Robb Elementary during the shooting.
“They went on lockdown, and he was under his desk for quite a while waiting and he was crying and kids were crying. And apparently, they heard some shots that sounded like fireworks,” said Adam Martinez, sitting at his dining room table the week before school started.
For the first few weeks afterwards, Zayon was somber and didn’t play much. To help him cope, his parents got him a guinea pig.
“He had been wanting some type of pet,” said Martinez. “It’s really helped him because he’s always playing with it.
Zayon named the guinea pig Max. As the summer passed, Martinez said his son started joking again and playing more.
“But there are some things that trigger him, like loud noises. He wants the door locked all the time and before he never really worried about the doors being locked,” Martinez said.
Zayon also has nightmares and trouble sleeping. And he’s not alone. Many kids and parents are still scared.
To help the community feel safer, the Uvalde school district is putting up 8-foot fences around the schools. They’ve hired campus monitors to roam the halls and check doors to make sure they’re locked and 33 state troopers will be stationed at the schools this year to provide extra security.
Those measures made Martinez feel better about sending his kids back. But Zayon and his 12-year-old sister Analiyh told their parents they’re scared because they don’t trust the police to protect them.
“They're worried that if it happens again, it's going to be the same scenario where they don't go in there, they don't protect them. So, it doesn't matter how high the fencing is, or how many police officers are there. They don't feel comfortable right now,” said Martinez.
The Uvalde school board fired the school police chief who was in command during the shooting, but the district’s other officers are still on the job. And it’s likely some of the state troopers assigned to guard Uvalde schools this year were also on the scene in May.
“I wish I could tell them ‘Well, those cops are gone, son. They won't be back,’ you know? But I can't. They're the same cops, those same cops are gonna be there,” Martinez said.
So, Adam and Raquel decided to enroll Zayon and Analiyh in the district’s new virtual option instead.
“If you're scared, you can't learn,” Adam Martinez said. “When you're in an unsafe environment it's going to be hard to interact with other children. When you're constantly looking around making sure that nothing happened.”
The Martinezes plan to reassess whether to return for in-person classes after the first semester. A lot of the Uvalde school district’s security upgrades aren’t done — fences are only up around two of the eight campuses, for instance. And the district’s own investigation into its officers’ actions that day hasn’t even begun.
Returning to school
On May 24, Angeli Gomez fought her way past the police line at Robb to get to her sons during the shooting.
This summer, she joined a group of women who call themselves Fierce Madres. They organized after the shooting to help push for change.
Sitting outside her grandma’s house on Friday, Gomez said she was originally planning to keep her kids home from school, but towards the end of the summer her sons said they wanted to return.
“I can't hold them back, because they just want to go catch up with friends and really do sports again,” said Gomez.
But the decision weighs on her.
“Just thinking about it feels like I’m going to cry,” said Gomez. “It feels like I'm letting them go and they could not come home tomorrow. And it would be my fault for letting them go back.”
Gomez is a single mom and works long hours in the field harvesting onions and cucumbers and chiles. She said it would have been really hard to figure out child care if she signed her sons up for virtual instruction. And a lot of parents are just like her.
“(I’m like a lot of single moms.) I can't stay home. I have to work,” Gomez said. “So, then who's gonna watch our kids?”
The first day of school brings back all the fear she experienced during the shooting. Earlier that day, it was a celebration. The school held an awards ceremony to honor students. Families were there, taking pictures of smiling kids.
Gomez knows those pictures could have been the last ones she ever took of her children.
“Not even 30 minutes later, you're getting a call that they're shooting up the school. It's just I don't know, it was just crazy. It was just bad,” Gomez said. “And it's just so hard to think about school again now and not think about what happened.”
As classes start Tuesday, the Uvalde school district will have comfort dogs on campus to help kids when they get overwhelmed. Teachers and staff have been trained how to respond to children experiencing grief and trauma.
But it just may be the parents who have the hardest time letting go. Especially those who should have one more child going back to school.