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As new school year approaches, some Uvalde parents opt for homeschooling

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

One day at a time - that's how many people we've spoken to in Uvalde, Texas, are living right now. It's been a little more than three months since 21 people were killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary at the end of the last school year. In a few days, many families will send their kids back to Uvalde's public schools. Others have felt like they've had to choose between their kid's best education options and their safety. At a recent community meeting, one local organizer left parents with this message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROY GUERRERO-JARAMILLO: If you do not feel that your child is safe going to school in the fall, then do not send them.

SUMMERS: Some people in that room nodded in agreement. One of them was Tina Quintanilla-Taylor. She invited me, along with producers Jonaki Mehta and Alejandra Marquez Janse, to her home.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: Hi.

ALEJANDRA MARQUEZ JANSE, BYLINE: Hello.

WINSTON TAYLOR: Hi.

MEHTA: How are you?

WINSTON: Tina's here.

TINA QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: Tina's here.

SUMMERS: Tina's 6-year-old son Winston met us at the door, and he was excited to introduce us to the family pets.

WINSTON: And we have two baby kitties and a big fat cat.

SUMMERS: As we talked, the cats, a puppy and a big brown dog named Gypsy roam the house. And Tina was making her way through a big stack of papers on the coffee table.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: In fact, today I am looking at alternative schooling for Winston. It is hard to find because he does receive services like speech therapy and occupational therapy. So this would be something that I would have to pay for.

SUMMERS: Tina is still deciding where to send Winston, but her decision was more clear cut for her daughter, who went to Robb last year. She's not going back to class in person.

MEHLE ROSE TAYLOR: My name's Mehle Rose Taylor. I am 9 years old, and I am in fourth grade.

SUMMERS: And you just started school for the year, right?

MEHLE: Yes.

SUMMERS: Tell us about it. How's it going?

MEHLE: It's going pretty good. I only started school two days.

SUMMERS: Hours before the shooting last spring, Tina and Mehle had gone to a school awards ceremony. They were in the parking lot together when Robb went into lockdown. They both made it out safely, but Mehle lost some friends that day, which her mom brought up during our conversation.

MEHLE: Oh, Rojelio Torres - he was on my bus, and he loved Pokemon.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: Do you want to show them the drawing?

MEHLE: Sure.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: After the shooting, she started drawing.

MEHLE: I try my best.

SUMMERS: It's beautiful.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: So describe Rojelio. How was he?

MEHLE: He was happy a lot. And we were best friends.

SUMMERS: Mehle doesn't feel safe going to school in person, at least not for now.

Do you think you want to go back to school in a classroom one day?

MEHLE: I don't know.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: Do you think it's safe for your friends to go to school?

MEHLE: No.

SUMMERS: This year, Mehle is enrolled in a home-schooling program called K12. It has a virtual component in the mornings and self-guided study for the rest of the day.

What's it like trying to do school with your brother at home, running around with the dogs?

MEHLE: He's normally in his room or in my mom's.

SUMMERS: Do you like your teacher?

MEHLE: Yes. She's a really nice teacher.

SUMMERS: What kind of things do you all talk about?

MEHLE: We're going to be doing activities, and we're talking about science.

SUMMERS: Almost everyone we spoke to in Uvalde shared their concerns about school security and safety. The school district has started putting new safety measures in place, including fences around each public school, adding security cameras and bringing 33 Texas state troopers on to school campuses. Tina Quintanilla-Taylor wants more than that.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: 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, like, the day after the shooting - before the shooting.

SUMMERS: Robb Elementary has been shut down since the shooting. The district plans to demolish it and build a new campus. So families in Uvalde have been left weighing whether to do some kind of at-home learning or send their kids back to classrooms.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: The only problem with the virtual learning through the school district is that we had it available during COVID. My children did not learn anything. So they're very far behind already. And then this shooting happened.

SUMMERS: It sounds like it's really compounding for kids in this community; trauma on top of trauma, these lost years to COVID and then losing their friends in a mass shooting.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: Yes, ma'am. It's been very difficult. Recovery is also painful, just trying to get back to everyday life. She has not been the same since the shooting happened. It's like she grew up.

SUMMERS: You said that your son told you the other day that he wants to run away.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: Yes. So Winston told me the other day that he wanted to run away so that he could go to a different school. I mean, sometimes you feel like you want to pick up and go yourself, but where do you go? And then our roots were placed here. It's been very difficult. So, yes, at the beginning of all this, we spoke about division in the community. You think we're divided now? We're probably more divided than we've ever been.

SUMMERS: Do you think that division can ever be healed?

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: No. No. So many families had families in leadership positions or on law enforcement positions that also lost part of their family. So the separation and the division is never going to be healed. There's always going to be a separation.

YURI DE LUNA: I think it's changed a lot. Uvalde's sad. Uvalde's never been like this.

SUMMERS: That's Yuri De Luna. She's homeschooling both of her sons, at least for this school year.

DE LUNA: Everybody have different opinions and everything, but everybody's fighting for a different reason. I feel like the situation is just pushing us apart, dividing us.

SUMMERS: Twelve-year-old Emmanuel and 11-year-old Eloyd went to Flores Elementary last year, so they were not at Robb when the shooting happened. But Eloyd had Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles as his fourth-grade teachers when he used to attend Robb. They were the two teachers who were killed on May 24, and Yuri says Eloyd has changed.

DE LUNA: As you see, I have an air mattress. He's scared of windows. So his bed's high, so he won't sleep in his room. He thinks he'll get shot at. So he sleeps on the floor in the air mattress.

SUMMERS: And that seems to help.

DE LUNA: It has its days.

SUMMERS: Some days, Eloyd covers the windows in their house with blankets.

DE LUNA: I don't know why. I don't know how a blanket's going to protect the bullet. But, you know, it's just whatever makes him feel comfortable.

SUMMERS: Yuri quit her job to help educate her sons. She used to manage a snow cone stand and restaurant.

DE LUNA: We've always been a two-income family. It was kind of rocky, and my husband decided to put other applications. Luckily, he found a better-paying job.

SUMMERS: At first, Yuri had some worries about taking her sons out of the classroom. She didn't want them to miss out on social interaction, and they both have learning disabilities, so she was worried about losing individualized services at school. But now that the homeschooling program has started, she's feeling better about things.

DE LUNA: I think we can manage. The caseworker that Eloyd had, she was amazing. She offered us extra counseling if the boys needed counseling. They opened their arms to us. You know, I feel really, really good about it.

SUMMERS: After their homeschool day ended, we went into Emmanuel's room to say hi to the boys.

ELOYD CASTRO: So much people.

SUMMERS: So much people. I know. I know. I'm sorry. How are you? I'm Juana.

Eloyd was sitting in the middle of his brother's bed, hunched over a laptop. Emmanuel was sitting at his desk. It's the bedroom of a true video gamer. There's a big flat-screen TV in the corner, Animal Crossing curtains, a Super Mario bedspread. We all had some questions for them.

MEHTA: Do you guys get along pretty well?

ELOYD: It depends what we - it's like, if one of us are grumpy, one of us are really hyper.

MEHTA: What about you? What do you think, Emmanuel?

EMMANUEL CASTRO JR.: Depends - depends if I have a good sleep.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: We just wanted to talk to you a little bit about how the new school year is going. I know you're only, like, two days in.

ELOYD: Pretty good. It's just like - it's really fun because I just talk to other people who seems nice, and the teachers are really nice. We just do really fun activities.

SUMMERS: Do you like this better than going to school in the classroom so far?

ELOYD: Yeah, because there's no lockdowns.

EMMANUEL: And I really like it because you could be in your room and - you know, so you can actually choose what you want to eat.

JANSE: Mom's food is better than school food I imagine?

EMMANUEL: Yes, very much so.

SUMMERS: What are you most looking forward to this year?

ELOYD: Learning to - science, basically, making little explosions.

SUMMERS: Yuri said that even though the homeschool program has been supportive, she wants this to be temporary.

DE LUNA: I honestly want them to go back. I want them to be social. I want them to experience everything I had, you know?

SUMMERS: Were there things that you would want to see or hear from the school district that would make you feel more confident in their abilities to educate your kids while able to keep them safe while they're at school?

DE LUNA: Right now, at this moment, nothing they say would help anything. It's actions. They need to do what they - what needs to be done and protect our kids.

SUMMERS: Back at the Quintanilla-Taylor house, Tina is having similar conversations with her daughter, Mehle.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: What do you want to do, Mehle? What changes do you want to make to keep the rest of your friends safe?

MEHLE: To, like, make the school safer with more protection and fences where nobody could climb them. They have barbed wire. And then doors would automatically close.

SUMMERS: For now, Yuri and Tina's biggest hopes for their kids are simple - a safe and comfortable school year with moments of fun and normalcy...

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: Mehle, was that you?

SUMMERS: ...Wherever possible.

QUINTANILLA-TAYLOR: No, I think that's your brother. Can you please ask him to turn that down? Thank you, ma'am.

SUMMERS: Tomorrow, we'll hear from one teacher in Uvalde who is returning to the classroom this year after surviving the shooting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.