Zayon Martinez spent his final period of second grade hiding under a desk while bullets flew through Robb Elementary School.
At the end of the slaughter, 19 of his schoolmates and two teachers were killed. Now Zayon, who is due to start third grade on Tuesday, doesn’t want to set foot in another classroom, his father said.
“I spoke to my son and I said to him, ‘You’re going to have more cops. You will have higher fences. And he didn’t have it,” said Zayon’s father, Adam Martinez.
“He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. They will not protect us.’”
Zayon’s fears are not unfounded. Since the tragic end of last school year, grief has been compounded by outrage in Uvalde, Texas.
Families learned that police officers waited more than 70 minutes before entering the two classrooms where 19 students and two teachers lay mortally wounded.
And authorities repeatedly changed their stories about what happened as damning new evidence emerged.
Now families who have already lost a child in the massacre are concerned about sending another child back to school. And months of preparation by parents and school administrators will be put to the test.
No students or staff will return to the site of the deadliest school massacre in nearly a decade.
“We will not be returning to this campus,” Hal Harrell, superintendent of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, said in June.
Instead, children who were first graders at Robb Elementary last year will start second grade at Dalton Elementary.
Robb’s second and third graders will attend the new Uvalde Primary School, which is based in an existing educational complex in the town, last year. Many Robb primary school teachers have moved to Uvalde Elementary.
And some students have left the school district altogether.
Enrollment at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Uvalde began its new school year with double the enrollment of elementary-age students compared to last fall, the principal said. The new students include 30 from Robb Elementary, who have received scholarships to attend the private school.
All students remaining in the Uvalde Public School District were able to sign up for distance learning and use tablets provided by the school district.
Martinez said his two children chose distance learning. “I spoke to my son and daughter and they said they were afraid they wouldn’t be protected if it happened again,” he said.
“There’s no fencing at junior high where my daughter would go. There is no way I will convince them to leave if there is no fencing.”
However, for some families where both parents work outside the home, distance learning is not an option.
And a change in scenery won’t erase the horror plaguing victims’ families — especially those debating whether to send their other children back to school.
Uziyah Garcia was supposed to be in fifth grade today. But he was gunned down in his classroom at the age of 10, leaving his family crippled with grief.
“It’s something that terrorizes you day and night,” said Uziyah’s uncle, Brett Cross, who raised Uziyah as his own son.
“I close my eyes. I only see my son. I hear the shots. It’s something that never goes away.”
But Cross has four other children in the school district. He struggles to decide whether to personally send her back to school.
“You want your kids to have that education and everything, but at the same time you’re afraid that at the end of the day, they’re not going to make it,” he said.
Cross spent much of that summer demanding accountability from the school district and criticizing law enforcement’s response.
“We have already seen that they did not do their job. So how are we supposed to trust that?” he said last week. “I don’t feel like my kids are safe.”
Cross has two 15-year-old daughters who have chosen to return to school in person. He said they are old enough to make their own decisions with the guidance of their parents.
“But my little ones (ages 7 and 10) … we’re not sure yet,” he said. “I don’t feel that everything has been done to protect our children.”
Cross said he appreciates some changes made by the school district. After the district announced 33 Texas Department of Public Safety officers would be working at Uvalde schools this year, Cross said he was reassured those DPS officers would not be among the dozens who responded the day of the massacre .
But he would like more active monitoring of schools. “We’ve had several inquiries about someone … watching the surveillance and all that, a dedicated person,” he said. “It would make me feel a lot safer.”
After months of public outcry, the Uvalde School District fired its police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo. State investigators and law enforcement analysts say Arredondo was the de facto commander of the incident on the day of the massacre.
The Uvalde School District also announced new safety measures planned for this school year. This includes hiring 10 more school police officers; installation of 500 new security cameras; the assignment of 33 Texas DPS officers to the Uvalde School District; and looking for a new interim police chief.
The school district said it has also increased emotional support for students, including having comfort dogs on each campus during the first few weeks of school, additional school counselors, and trauma-informed nursing training for all staff.
But Cross said he wasn’t done calling for more safety measures – not just for his surviving children but for all children in the hope no other family has to endure the agony he is enduring.
“I am fighting against the system that failed him (Uziyah). I attend every city council meeting. I attend every school board meeting,” he said.
Cross has also questioned why 18-year-olds in Texas can buy assault rifles like the one that killed Uziyah.
“You have to be 21 to buy cigarettes and alcohol – things that can kill you. But you only have to be 18 to buy something that can kill multiple people,” he said.
“I’m channeling my sadness into the fight right now because this fight is a fight that everyone should be in – but nobody is until they are. And it’s a lot harder on this side with that hole in your heart to fight that fight.