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It's the first day of school in Uvalde since May's mass shooting

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Students in Uvalde, Texas, are going back to school today. This is the first day back to class since a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers last May. The elementary school shooting 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. Teacher Nicole Ogburn and her fourth-grade students escaped through their classroom window that day. How this first day back might go has weighed heavily on her mind.

NICOLE OGBURN: Am I going to still be able to keep my composure when those kids come in and have an anxiety attack over being here at school and feeling scared? Am I going to be able to handle that? And I hope I am, but I'm not sure.

MARTINEZ: Ogburn spoke to Juana Summers of NPR's All Things Considered late last month as she prepared her new classroom.

OGBURN: I hope we can get - not past this, but I hope that they can have a happy year. I hope that they start to feel safe in going places and doing things 'cause I know a lot of the kids even that weren't at Robb are having a hard time feeling safe because this is what surrounded our town all summer.

MARTINEZ: Texas Public Radio's Camille Phillips spoke to Uvalde families who were affected by the tragedy.

CAMILLE PHILLIPS, BYLINE: It's been a little more than three months since the shooting. Time has both stood still and moved along.

Hello.

ADAM MARTINEZ: How are you?

PHILLIPS: Good. How are you?

ADAM MARTINEZ: Good, thank you.

PHILLIPS: At the Martinez home, it's just before dinner. Adam and Raquel have four kids and another on the way. Raquel is making lasagna.

Do you make lasagna a lot?

RAQUEL MARTINEZ: No.

ADAM MARTINEZ: This is your first time, right?

R MARTINEZ: This is my first time making it.

PHILLIPS: What made you decide to try lasagna tonight?

R MARTINEZ: Cravings.

PHILLIPS: (Laughter).

Their oldest two kids have finished high school, but their daughter Analiyh is starting seventh grade and their son Zayon is in third. Zayon was at Robb Elementary during the shooting.

ADAM MARTINEZ: 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.

PHILLIPS: Adam Martinez says for the first few weeks afterwards, his 8-year-old son was somber and didn't play much. To help him cope, the Martinezes got him a guinea pig.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUINEA PIG SQUEAKING)

PHILLIPS: What's that?

ZAYON MARTINEZ: It's a guinea pig.

PHILLIPS: A guinea pig? What's its name?

ZAYON: Max.

PHILLIPS: Max?

ADAM MARTINEZ: And now he's gotten back to normal, pretty much, where he's just joking around, being active and - 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.

PHILLIPS: Martinez says Zayon also has nightmares and trouble sleeping. And he's not alone. Many kids and parents are still scared. The Uvalde school district is putting up 8-foot fences around the schools, and 33 state troopers will be stationed at the schools this year. Those measures made Adam Martinez feel better about sending his kids back. But Analiyh and Zayon told their parents they're scared because they don't trust the police to protect them.

ADAM MARTINEZ: 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.

PHILLIPS: 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.

ADAM MARTINEZ: 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. The same cops are going to be there.

PHILLIPS: So Adam and Raquel decided to enroll their kids in the district's new virtual option instead.

ADAM MARTINEZ: If you're scared, you can't learn. You know, 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 happens.

PHILLIPS: 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 2 of the 8 campuses, for instance, and the district's own investigation into its officers' actions that day hasn't even begun.

ANGELI GOMEZ: So then, wait - I'll meet you at the murals when I'm done with her right here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll wait.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There you go.

PHILLIPS: This past Friday, Angeli Gomez was with a group of mothers who call themselves Fierce Madres. They got together after the shooting to become politically active. On this day, they're going house to house, stumping for a state legislative candidate who wants stricter gun laws. Gomez is known for something else, too. She was the woman who fought her way past the police line at Robb to save her two sons during the shootings.

We set up lawn chairs outside her grandma's house to talk. Gomez says she was originally planning to keep her kids home from school, but towards the end of the summer, her son said they wanted to return.

GOMEZ: I mean, I can't hold them back 'cause they just want to go catch up with friends and really do sports again.

PHILLIPS: She's going to let them go back. But it's not been an easy decision.

GOMEZ: Like, just thinking about it, I feel like on that day I'm going to cry because it feels like kindergarten, but, like, it feels like I'm letting them go and something - they could not come home tomorrow, and it would be my fault for letting them go back.

PHILLIPS: Gomez is a single mom and works long hours in the field, harvesting onions and cucumbers and chiles. She says it would have been really hard to figure out childcare if she signed her sons up for virtual instruction. And a lot of parents are just like her.

GOMEZ: I can't stay home. I'm like, I'm one of those. I can't stay home. Like, I have to work. So and then who's going to watch our kids?

PHILLIPS: The first day of school brings back all the fear she experienced on May 24. 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.

GOMEZ: And not even 30 minutes later, getting a call that they're shooting up the school - it's just - I don't know. It's just crazy. It was just bad.

PHILLIPS: Yeah.

GOMEZ: And it's just so hard to think about school again now and not think about what happened.

PHILLIPS: As classes start today, 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 had one more child going back to school but don't.

For NPR News, I'm Camille Phillips, in Uvalde, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camille Phillips covers education for Texas Public Radio.