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Uvalde students are returning to school, but security concerns remain


Today was a difficult day in Uvalde, Texas, where students returned to school for the first time since the deadly shooting last May. That's when a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary. The botched police response has been a focus since then. But today was a day about trying to return to normal in Uvalde. This is how Angeli Gomez recently described sending her sons back to school.

ANGELI GOMEZ: 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.

SUMMERS: Texas Public Radio's Camille Phillips has been reporting on this and joins us now. Hi, Camille.


SUMMERS: So, Camille, students are not returning to the Robb campus where that shooting happened. And when our team was in Uvalde in August, the biggest thing on people's mind seemed to be school security. Tell us a little bit about what security is like in that school district as students are heading back.

PHILLIPS: The school district has beefed up some security. For instance, they started putting up taller, eight-foot fences around each of the campuses, but they've only 90% finished at two of the campuses and haven't even started those fences at the other eight campuses. The two schools that are pretty much finished are the ones where the Robb students go now, by the way. The Texas Department of Public Safety is putting 33 state troopers at Uvalde schools. Different troopers will rotate in each week this year. But not all parents are reassured by this because the school superintendent can't guarantee that the troopers assigned to the schools weren't also part of that law enforcement response at Robb that waited so long. The district will eventually add 500 new security cameras to schools, but they've only finished installing them at the high school so far, and they haven't figured out how they'll be monitored yet either. And the district's also hired campus monitors to check doors and windows throughout the day at the school to make sure they're locked.

SUMMERS: OK. So those are the security changes that are going on. But how else has the school district prepared to receive students for the first time since the shooting?

PHILLIPS: Like you mentioned, they're not going back to Robb Elementary. The district has also brought in therapy dogs at each campus for students for the first couple of weeks. And there's now at least one licensed counselor on each campus, which is new this year. And the district has an app for students to share how they're feeling each day, which will give them a sense of who might need some extra help at school.

SUMMERS: Camille, we have both had conversations with the families over the last few weeks who are in the position of making some really hard decisions about the school year and how to educate their kids. Some families are choosing to go back in person, others are doing virtual schooling or homeschooling. What can you tell us about what today has been like for them?

PHILLIPS: This has been a really hard day, to say the least. Many parents told me today brings back all of the fear and grief they felt on the day of the shooting. The decision has been so difficult that some families have waited until the last minute to decide what to do. Two of the families I spoke with let their kids decide what they wanted to do, what they felt comfortable with. Basically, there are two camps, and it's hard to know exactly how many people are in each. Some are sticking with the district. A handful of those have chosen Uvalde's new virtual option, like you mentioned, but most who've opted to stay in Uvalde schools are going back in person. A lot of parents work, and child care is hard to find and hard to afford. Then, there are those who have lost trust in the district. They're angry about what happened. They're frustrated by the slow pace of investigations and security upgrades. And they feel just general anxiety, however unlikely that something unthinkable could happen again.

SUMMERS: That is Texas Public Radio's Camille Phillips. Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camille Phillips covers education for Texas Public Radio.