The Uvalde school district will be offering a virtual option for families that don't feel comfortable sending their kids back to school in person after the mass shooting in May.
Nineteen children and two teachers were killed in the shooting. Seventeen others were injured.
Even with promises of significant security upgrades — from 8-foot fences to secure front entrances — families in Uvalde have been asking for a virtual option for weeks. Some parents don't trust the district to keep their kids safe after the district's police officers waited more than an hour to confront the gunman. Others are worried about the trauma of sending their kids back to school after their confidence that their school was safe was shattered.
During a school board meeting Monday evening, Uvalde Superintendent Hal Harrell said the district had gotten permission from the Texas Education Agency to launch a virtual academy for any Uvalde family that wants it.
"TEA put out some (information in response to the pandemic) that (virtual learning) can only be so many students for so much time," Harrell said. "They have waived all those pieces, so our virtual academy will be stood up as long as we need to for our families, our students."
During public comments Rachel Martinez asked the superintendent to confirm that there wouldn't be a cap on the number of students allowed to enroll in virtual instruction. Harrell confirmed that it would be open to as many students who want it, in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Uvalde CISD has added an information page about virtual learning to its website, and opened a survey to gauge families' interest in the option. Applications for the virtual academy open Aug. 10. Harrell said parents should reach out to the district if they don't receive an email verifying the application was submitted by Aug. 15.
State troopers at Uvalde schools
In addition to a long list of structural security upgrades and checks, including plans to add shatterproof glass or film to external doors, Harrell said Uvalde CISD has also made arrangements with the Texas Department of Public Safety to station state troopers at the district's schools this fall.
"We will have 33 (DPS) officers in (the) district, first day of school and throughout the year," Harrell said. "So, I’m very thankful to Texas DPS for their partnership and support as we move forward."
Uvalde CISD is also in the process of hiring additional school police officers.
Supporting mental health needs
Harrell said the district is providing training on grief and trauma to all staff members, and he plans to hire enough counselors to have at least one at every school.
"Our goal is to add one school counselor to each campus in the district, and possibly two at the high school," Harrell said. "We want to add five more licensed counselors and social workers, allowing one to serve each campus on a full-time basis."
Community calls for action
Several of the victims' families who have been outspoken at previous meetings didn't speak at Monday's school board meeting. But the community members who spoke during public comments made it clear they no longer trust the district's leadership. They also said they were frustrated by the delay in holding a termination hearing for the district's police chief, Pete Arredondo, and by the district's decision to reassign the former principal of Robb Elementary to another role in the district rather than dismiss her.
Jesse Rizo, who lost his niece Jackie Cazares in the shooting, asked the superintendent and one of the district's board members, J.J. Suarez, what actions they took during the shooting.
Suarez is a former police officer and a division chair at Southwest Texas Junior College, where he teaches criminal justice.
"I’m really disappointed, J.J.," Rizo said, asking Suarez why he didn't take a more active role, and why he went along with the decision to treat the scene like a barricade situation rather than an active shooter.
"Did they tell you that there were children in there? You didn’t hear any gunshots when you got there?" Rizo asked.
"No, sir," Suarez replied. "I did not know that there (were) kids in there. I did not. I did not ask that question. And that haunts me, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But what I was told was that it was a barricaded person."
Early on during public comments, Harrell acknowledged the district had lost the community's trust.
"It’s going to take a while to regain that trust. But it’s going to take everyone across this stage right here (on the school board) and everyone in this community to work together. Because you’re right. The trust has been damaged. It has been broken," Harrell said. "And it’s going to take a while to fix it."
Community member Daniel Myers told the superintendent those words didn't mean much to him.
"As you can tell, May 24 is very much engraved in our hearts, very vivid in our minds. Not going to be swept under the rug. With all due respect, Dr. Harrell, the words that you uttered earlier were just like words. Like ‘water (off) a duck’s back.' We want results," Myers said. "As of right now, has anybody lost their job? Has anybody been terminated? If anything, we see that they’re getting reinstated."
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