DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Thousands of families across North Texas are gearing up to send their kids back to school this week as COVID-19 cases surge.

Students will start a new school year plagued by old worries.

“I most look forward to seeing all my friends, but also being careful at the same time,” said Olivia Wolston, a 12-year-old in Grand Prairie. “It will be interesting.”

Public health officials say the best way to protect our children and our teachers is by getting the vaccine.

The delta variant continues to take its toll on the region. According to the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, there are now more than 2,000 COVID patients in area hospitals.

“The COVID vaccine is the best defense we have against getting the COVID virus,” Gov. Greg Abbott in a PSA released this weekend. “You can even get your vaccine at many of the same stores where you can stock up on your school supplies.”

Both the governor and public health officials are encouraging families to add the COVID vaccine to their back-to-school checklist.

Children 12 and up are eligible for the shot.

“I’m shocked at how many people don’t know that it’s free, that you don’t need an appointment,” said Robert Santiago, the outreach manager for a partnership between the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and Walmart.

DSHS set up a booth outside a Dallas store to share information about the vaccine.

“The more people can get out and let them know what it’s about, maybe that would help more people feel comfortable with getting the vaccination,” said Kassondra Vines, who has already gotten the shot but hopes the effort convinces others, too, for the sake of her grandchildren.

“I’m kind of sad because I want to feel safe with them going back into the schools,” Vines said.

The state says the key to making that happen is to get more people vaccinated.

Caroline Vandergriff