Homeschooling in Uvalde: Virtual learning option not accessible to everyone

Almost 30% of households in the county lack broadband internet subscriptions.

September 10, 2022, 10:04 AM

UVALDE, Texas -- Despite her daughter's fearfulness to return to school in Uvalde and her pleas to learn at home, Sandra Gracia is sending her daughter, Elva, back to school because she can't afford the online alternative.

"I want to [homeschool], because I think I'd feel more safe…but I have to work," said Gracia, a single mom.

Just over three months ago, a shooter entered Robb Elementary School where Elva was enrolled and killed 19 of her fellow students and two teachers. Her mother told ABC News her daughter is traumatized after seeing kids coming out of the school wearing clothing marred with blood. Elva's cousin, Eliahana Cruz Torres, was among the victims.

Families are faced with new considerations as they navigate shared grief, an ongoing investigation involving their school district's police department and increased security measures that some find insufficient.

Students arrive at Uvalde Elementary, now protected by a fence and Texas State Troopers, for the first day of school, on Sept. 6, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP

Uvalde:365 is a continuing ABC News series reported from Uvalde and focused on the Texas community and how it forges on in the shadow of tragedy.

The first day of school this fall looked different for every student in Uvalde. The public school district in Uvalde gave families a virtual and in-person option, though each presents unique challenges.

A week before the first day of school, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Board announced 136 students were enrolled in the virtual academy -- that figure dropped to 59 on the first day of school, with a total student enrollment of 3,724 students, according to the district. Less than 2% of students in Uvalde have opted to learn from home through the school's offered program.

The school district did not immediately reply to ABC News' request for overall student withdrawal numbers. This figure would include students who have chosen to homeschool using a third-party program.

Gemma, a 5th grader who attended Robb Elementary School, waits for the bus on her first day back to school, Sept. 6.
Olivia Osteen/ABC News

Fernanda Moreno, grandmother to fifth grader Gemma, who attended Robb Elementary School, is sending her granddaughter back to school for a sense of normalcy.

"I want her to take the fear away from her and go ahead...leave everything behind and go to school, and forget know, go to school and everything and move on," Moreno said.

Gemma added that she learns better in a traditional school environment. A predominantly Spanish speaker, her grandmother said another contributing factor in their decision is that she doesn't feel capable of helping Gemma with virtual school because of her limited computer skills.

Gemma, a 5th grader who attended Robb Elementary School, waits for the bus on her first day back to school, Sept. 6.
Olivia Osteen/ABC News

The 2016-2020 U.S. Census reported that 29.7% of households in Uvalde County do not have a subscription to broadband internet, almost 15% above the national average. According to the same report, 19% of the population lives below the poverty line. Almost half of the Uvalde County population speaks a language other than English at home. All of these factors impact whether virtual learning is a feasible option for families.

Without reliable internet access, kids can't learn online. In an environment where learning is presented in English, an available, fluent and digitally-literate English speaker is necessary for concept-grasping and homework. In Gemma’s case, this is her family’s barrier to opting for at-home learning. The statistics indicate a significant portion of Uvaldean families, as in the Gracias’ case, don't have the means to stay at home with their children when they must work.

Other parents can accommodate their children for at-home learning, but the option doesn't come without its own challenges. Tina Quintanilla told ABC News her daughter, Mehle, made the decision to homeschool remotely outside of the district's virtual offering.

"It was her choice. It was solely her choice. I asked her what she wanted to do. And she said she was not ready to go back to school," she said.

Quintanilla said that triggering reminders of the shooting are pervasive throughout the district, and that her daughter simply doesn't feel safe. She said security issues, which she claimed have long been a problem, have not been properly addressed, which is why her daughter is opting for virtual learning.

"If she don't feel safe, she's not going to go," she said.

The school district previously announced an elaborate security enhancement plan that includes an installment of 500 cameras, the hiring of school monitors and a supplemental deployment of 33 Texas Department of Public Safety officers, among other initiatives.

Parents like Quintanilla still find fault in the initiative, as the enhancement plan's completion will occur sometime after the start of school and officers who responded to the shooting are permitted to return this fall, despite public scrutiny and outcry from the community.

Another downside to homeschooling is a lack of socialization. Quintanilla said her daughter is not only missing her friends who tragically died in May, but also old and new friendships that come with a traditional, in-person school setting.

"When we were kids, we wanted to have our friends and run and play and be kids. And now these kids think about school safety, and that's horrible," she said.

Students arrive at Uvalde Elementary, now protected by a fence and Texas State Troopers, for the first day of school, on Sept. 6, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP

Adam Martinez also worries about the missing social component, but that hasn't changed his plan to enroll his children in UCISD's virtual academy. A parent to two kids in the district, Martinez said he and his wife can't send their kids back because the children are terrified. Their 8-year-old son, Zayon, was a student at Robb and present the day of the shooting.

"He's said that the cops aren't gonna protect him if it happens again," Martinez told ABC News.

Even if they weren't fearful, Martinez said, he refuses to allow them back onto campus until the district finishes the security installment and provides answers from their investigation.

On the morning of Sept. 6, the first day of school, a portion of the exterior fence at Benson Elementary was being re-installed as children got off their buses. The fences at Flores Elementary were also incomplete; construction workers could be seen drilling holes for fence posting as students entered school buildings. The UCISD website shows a progress graphic that indicates camera installation has only been completed on one of the eight schools in the plan.

When asked how his family will manage homeschooling, Martinez said his wife's maternity leave, at least for a few months, will allow her to assist their kids. The rest of the year's logistics, he said they will figure out.

"Even if we didn't have options, we can't send him if he's scared to death," he said.