On Monday, nearly 60,000 public school students in El Paso, Texas, will start the school year amid an air of mourning, fear and resilience.
The first day of school in El Paso's largest district comes more than a week after a mass shooting at a local Walmart left 22 people dead. According to a police affidavit, the suspect charged in the attack later said he had intentionally targeted "Mexicans."
"It's not at all, in any way, a typical start of school," says Juan Cabrera, the superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD). "This is not going to be easy. This is going to be difficult and we are really taking this very seriously."
According to Cabrera, the school district has been contacting families affected by the shooting in order to connect them to support services. No EPISD students were killed, but Cabrera says El Paso is a close-knit community and some students have family members who were directly involved, or know people who were at the Walmart during the attack.
Others — like Genesis Contreras, 7 — witnessed the shooting themselves.
Genesis starts second grade on Monday. She and her family were in the store when the gunman opened fire. They escaped, but Genesis' mom, Erika Contreras, says the experience has rattled them.
"That first night, she kept telling me, 'I don't want to go to sleep,' " Contreras recalls. "I had to sleep with her and she cuddled me so hard because she was so scared and I knew that she was gonna have nightmares."
Genesis has slept with her mom every night since the shooting.
Contreras says Genesis' school knows about what she experienced, and it will have counselors available to provide support on Monday if Genesis needs it.
The district says its counseling office has provided teachers guidance for how to support students who were affected by the shooting.
"Having a week in between before the start of the school has really helped us," explains Manuel Castruita, who heads the district's counseling and advising department. He says all last week, teachers and administrators were in professional development, talking through what happened, and brainstorming ways to help students.
"The first day of school, it's a new start, a new beginning. So we have an opportunity to really set the tempo."
Castruita says on Monday some school administrators will hold a moment of silence, "acknowledging the tragedy that took place." But he notes it's a delicate balance: You want to be open about what happened, without retraumatizing students. He says the district will rely heavily on the social/emotional learning tools it has been implementing over the past several years.
According to Castruita, the district also has strong support services, thanks to partnerships with outside organizations and a number of licensed professional counselors.
"We're not starting from ground zero or from scratch," he says.
In a video address to parents on Saturday, Superintendent Cabrera talked directly to those who felt uncertain about heading back to school: "We know your concern is genuine, but so is our commitment to provide safe learning spaces for our students," he said. "EPISD schools are safe and we sincerely hope you feel reassured that when your kids are with us, they are our No. 1 priority."
The district's job, according to Cabrera, is "to make sure [students] are safe, happy, sound mentally and physically, and to make sure they're prepared for learning."
In some cases, that may mean talking about the shooting. "Kids know this is happening around them," Cabrera says. "The worst thing we can do is not let them speak or not let them talk about what's going on."
Genesis — who loves science and is excited to do experiments and learn about tornadoes — is more focused on starting a new year of school with a new teacher.
"I'm really scared," she says. "I know it's gonna be a lot harder."
Her mom is also nervous. "I just wish and I pray that no matter what, she's strong," Contreras says. "I know she's a child, and at any moment, she could decide that this is the moment where she breaks and wants to cry."
Contreras is glad that Genesis' teachers and counselors will be there with her, and she trusts they will be looking out for her daughter. And with Genesis back in school, Contreras says she'll be able to turn her attention to another pressing matter: her own mental health, after witnessing a mass shooting.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's the first day of classes for El Paso's largest school district. Many students are obviously still struggling to make sense of the mass shooting that claimed 22 lives there just over a week ago. Here's Mallory Falk from member station KERA.
MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Seven-year-old Genesis Contreras is really into crafting. Right now she's showing off little personal pizzas she makes with paper and colored pencils.
GENESIS: This one has tomatoes, one mushroom, a couple of lettuces, and pepperoni, ham and hot peppers.
FALK: Genesis stands in her mom's bedroom. It's filled with her doll collection and craft supplies. She's been sleeping in here since the shooting. On the morning of the shooting, she and her mom, Erika, were deciding what to make for breakfast.
ERIKA: And I figured, OK, well, you know, it'd be nice to go get some bacon and make something nice. You know, I like to make them, like, good, big meals for breakfast. So I told her, you know what? - let's just go to Walmart, and we'll come back.
FALK: They were there when the gunman opened fire, but they were able to escape. They went home and started to pray.
ERIKA: My daughter, she right away asked me, what about the receipt man? I don't know if you know, but at Walmart, there's always a man in the front that checks your receipts. And that was the first thing my daughter asked me - Mom, did the receipt man make it? And I haven't been able to answer that because I myself don't even know.
FALK: Genesis is mostly her same bubbly, outgoing self, Erika says, but sometimes she gets rattled.
ERIKA: Here and there. Like, if somebody creeps up from behind her, or if she hears, like, clacking noise, or if she hears anything that has to do with, I guess, the remembrance of the noises that she heard that day, she does freak out. She does panic.
FALK: Nearly 60,000 El Paso students head back to school today. Some, like Genesis, survived the shooting. Some lost family or other loved ones. Manuel Castruita is director of counseling and advising for the El Paso Independent School District.
MANUEL CASTRUITA: It is the first day of school. That's the beautiful part of that, that it's a new start, a new beginning. So we have an opportunity to really set the tempo.
FALK: It's a delicate balance, he says. You want to acknowledge the tragedy but not retraumatize students. He's suggested schools can hold a moment of silence.
CASTRUITA: You are acknowledging the event that took place, and then based on that then depending on where children are and adults are, then you follow suit from that.
FALK: Castruita says teachers have been trained to look for signs that a student might be struggling, like withdrawal or emotional outbursts. Little kids often get clingy. Those students might get referred to counselors. For her part, Genesis Contreras is sort of looking forward to school.
What are you most excited for?
GENESIS: Meeting my friends. That's probably it 'cause I'm really scared.
FALK: She's heard second grade is pretty hard, but she is looking forward to science class. In the meantime, her mom, Erika, is trying to limit reminders of the shooting. But she can't avoid everything.
ERIKA: I'm sorry, but be forewarned, the car really smells.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR OPENING)
FALK: In the chaos after the shooting, Erika threw her groceries in her trunk. But she had to leave her car in the parking lot and wasn't allowed to retrieve it for several days.
ERIKA: Meat, cheese - all of that penetrated and seeped right in there. Butter was, like, literally liquefied.
FALK: Genesis complains the car smells like a garbage truck. And that rancid smell is a constant reminder of the shooting. But Erika says she doesn't have another choice. They have to get in the car, and they have to continue on. And once Genesis is back in school, Erika says she'll take some time to focus on her own mental health.
For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.