The first thing that strikes you when you walk through Yuri De Luna’s front door these days is a blue air mattress leaning against a wall in the entryway. It’s for her 11-year-old son Eloyd.
“He’s afraid of windows. His bed is high, so he doesn’t sleep in his room,” she says, citing his recent fears of a shooter attacking while he sleeps.
Some days Eloyd covers the windows of her house with blankets. “I don’t know how a blanket would protect [from] a bullet,” says Yuri, letting out a sad laugh. “But you know, it’s just what makes him feel comfortable.”
Yuri says her son has changed so much since the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May, where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers. While Eloyd didn’t visit Robb last year, he had been going there in previous years.
This week, as in-person classes resume for the first time since the shooting, Yuri has already decided to home-school Eloyd and his 12-year-old brother Emmanuel for the time being. And she is not alone.
Deyanira Salazar, a resident of Uvalde and a former local teacher-turned-tutor, says she’s not sure what can really prepare anyone for this new school year, although she’s seen how her students have changed since the initial shock of the Gunfight improved emotionally.
“I hear it from parents, I hear it from students, and I hear it from teachers that they’re not ready,” she says.
How to teach Uvalde’s children after a mass shooting
At a recent community meeting in the city, led by a group called “Uvalde Strong for Gun Safety,” heated discussions swirled about holding the school district accountable for safety, whether to send children back to classrooms, and legislation for gun control. Local organizer and pediatrician Roy Guerrero-Jaramillo has succinct advice for parents: “If you don’t feel like your child will be safe to go to school in the fall, then don’t send them.”
Tina Quintanilla-Taylor, parent and meeting organizer, nods in agreement as Guerrero-Jaramillo speaks. Knowing someone who was able to scale a newly erected security fence at a local school, she insists the school district hasn’t done enough to inspire confidence to send her children back to school.
Many who spoke to NPR in Uvalde support the fences being erected around public schools, the hundreds of new security cameras on the way, updated locks and other security measures the school district is implementing. But Tina wants more. “For my children to feel safe and for our voices to be heard, I can say with certainty that we need a school and we need it now,” she says.
Robb Elementary School will eventually be demolished and a new school is slated to be built, although the district has not yet set a timeline for those plans. But Tina points out that a majority of property taxes in Uvalde go to the school district – in her case 43% of their property tax bill. “So I’d like to see where our money has gone for a long time,” she says.
Reservations about homeschooling
A few days after that community gathering, Tina is puzzling over a stack of school forms in her living room and knows she must choose between her son’s best educational opportunities and his safety.
“He’s on the autism spectrum. He has global developmental delay, sensory processing disorder and is deaf in his left ear,” she says.
Some of the private schools Tina is considering for her 6-year-old Winston won’t provide the personalized services he needs – so she’d have to pay for them out of her own pocket. But her decision on how to school her 9-year-old daughter, Mehle, this year was clearer: 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 is so cool’,” says Tina. “But she misses her friends.”
Mehle, a former Robb student, is also mourning some friends who died in the shooting, including Rojelio Torres. “He was on my bus and loved Pokémon,” she says, unfolding a picture she drew of him. “He [wore] this jacket every day on the bus… and then he would wear these shoes to match his jacket,” she explains, pointing to the patterns she drew on Rojelio’s outfit. “I tried my best,” she says. She looks down at the drawing.
Tina says she didn’t tell her daughter the gruesome details of what happened to her friends at Robb’s, but that Mehle understands that many of her friends are gone forever.
When asked if she personally wants to return to school at some point, Mehle says she’s not sure. As for her friends, Mehle said, “I would tell them not to go to school. And that they should have an online school like me.”
Still, Tina has her reservations about homeschooling. When her children were forced into virtual learning in the early years of the coronavirus pandemic, she says, they struggled with learning. “So they’re already a long way behind, and then this shooting happened, and it puts them back even further.”
The financial burden of a difficult choice
A few miles away, west of town, Yuri De Luna faced a similar predicament.
Her sons attended Flores Primary School last school year, which also set the date of Robb’s shooting. Yuri says 11-year-old Eloyd is upset when he thinks of his former fourth-grade teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles – the two teachers killed in the massacre. Yuri recalls taking the boys to a toy store for surviving children, and Eloyd’s response, “It won’t bring my teachers back.”
Since then, however, Yuri says the experience has also fueled Eloyd’s long-held dream of becoming a police officer — especially since he learned of Robb’s widely criticized response from law enforcement.
“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 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 a bit bumpy. And my husband decided to submit other applications,” she says. “Luckily he found a better paying job.”
The boys had to give up some things while the family readjusts their new financial situation. “My Emmanuel, he [sold] hot wing panels to earn money. The other day he was drinking nachos and sodas… you know, to make money to buy his games,” says Yuri.
Yuri was also initially concerned about Emmanuel and Eloyd losing individualized services at school as they both have learning disabilities. She feels supported by the K12 program but hopes that eventually they can receive personal occupational therapy through the school district.
For now, she says there’s nothing the school district can do to make her feel safe enough to send her children to school — it’s action she wants to see. And she hopes Emmanuel and Eloyd will eventually return to a school campus. “I want them to be social. I want them to experience everything I had,” says Yuri.
The boys see the bright side of homeschooling. They’ve just finished their second day of school and are hanging out in Emmanuel’s bedroom while they both click on their computers. Eloyd says he prefers the current homeschooling arrangement to in-person school because there are no lockdowns. He is looking forward to scientific experiments this year.
His brother Emmanuel chimes in: “And I really like it because you can be in your room and you can actually choose what you want to eat.” Namely her mother’s home cooking.
At the moment, both households go to school every day and into their changed, new lives. Tina and Yuri’s hopes for their children are simple: normality, fun and a safe upcoming school year.