Cy-Fair Independent School District (CFISD), the third-largest school district in Texas home to more than 114,000 students, is set to begin its fall semester on September 8. With a mix of in-person and virtual learning, teachers across the district are raising alarms, warning that CFISD’s current reopening plan fails to consider the safety of its teachers, students, and the broader community.
In the absence of a state-wide plan for reopening schools, districts across Texas have devised their own ways to deal with the upcoming fall semester. Many have pushed back start dates while working to ensure all classes can go digital.
Instead of adapting their plan to meet the needs of teachers and vulnerable members of the CFISD community, the district issued an ultimatum to educators and staff: Go into the schools or quit.
Now CFISD teachers are being forced to weigh the risks of potentially catching a lethal virus and spreading it to their loved ones, taking unpaid leave, or attempting to enter the job market in the middle of one of the worst economic recessions in the country’s history.
The Signal spoke with CFISD teachers, many of whom wished to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals from the district or their schools’ administrators. Nearly every teacher interviewed reported feelings of resignation, fear, and horror that CFISD, which publicly boasts of treating its teachers well, would ultimately abandon them to the coronavirus.
A Labor Dispute Brews in Cypress
“It has been shocking [to see] the disregard the district board has shown towards teachers,” a veteran English teacher at a high school in CFISD told the Signal. According to her and five other middle and high school teachers, the district has yet to ask teachers about their willingness to physically return to work during the pandemic.
“What they are setting us up to do is designed to fail,” she said, adding that she feels like “a wasted cog in the machine.”
Houston and its surrounding areas remain at a ‘severe’ rating according to Harris County’s COVID-19 data tracking system. The positivity rate for COVID-19 tests, which has been described as a key factor in determining the magnitude of a local outbreak, have hovered between 10 and 14 percent—well above the 5 percent the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends as a maximum rate before conducting any reopenings.
“They’ve never asked how we feel about returning, or what kinds of things would make us feel safe the way other districts have,” another high school teacher who wished to remain anonymous explained.
“I love my students, my campus. I want to be there more than anything. But the case counts are still too high.”
Starting in mid-August, CFISD required all teachers to attend professional development training sessions at their schools, a move that prompted the local Cy Fair chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to file a restraining order allowing teachers to attend the training virtually.
Nikki Cowart, president of the Cy-Fair AFT, emphasized that the restraining order was her last resort to try and protect staff members. “We felt that we had to act, we [had] no other choice,” Cowart said.
The move was a dramatic escalation from the teachers’ union considering CFISD is nestled in a deeply conservative suburb of Cypress. Cowart said in the time since filing the injunction, she’s fielded threats from local residents who are outraged at the union’s action.
“This is an absolute disgrace,” Eric Folmer, a Houston resident, wrote on the Texas AFT Facebook page. “If you are a teacher in CFISD and want to return to the classroom, fight back against these mafia tyrants like Nikki Cowart.”
To push back against the AFT, some teachers and administrators tweeted their enthusiasm for physically returning to campuses with the hashtag ‘#aftdoesntspeakforme.’
“I find it really disheartening when teachers say ‘we all need to be on campus,” a middle school teacher told the Signal. “I don’t have that luxury. Instead of this infighting between teachers, we should be leveraging our privilege for teachers that can’t go to work.”
“If we save one teacher’s life, a student’s life, or a parent’s life, then it’ll be worth it,” Cowart said referring to the rifts in Cypress caused by the dispute between AFT and the CFISD Board.
While teachers were able to work remotely on August 17 while the injunction was being considered, the Texas Supreme Court swiftly struck down the local AFT’s legal challenge to the District. Mandatory in-person training resumed immediately. These training sessions have consisted of sitting inside classrooms watching videos on Zoom or YouTube, an activity that can be performed at home.
The AFT’s current plan is to work to ensure safety guidelines are strictly abided by within schools.
Funding Versus Lives
A growing perception among educators in Cy-Fair is that the CFISD Board of Trustees is prioritizing funding from the state for reopening over the lives of community members by continuing to push for in-person learning.
The consequences of that choice may turn out to be fatal in the fall.
One reason the district has not opted for all-digital learning has been that it cannot procure enough digital devices to all its students, one district employee who works in IT confirms.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if there was a breakout before kids even get here,” he said. “I’ve lost faith that they’ll do the right thing.”
Teachers increasingly anxious about voicing their concerns have begun to flock to the Cy-Fair AFT, which has gained around 200 new members since in-school training began. It has also established a hotline for non-union affiliated teachers to call in to share details of their school’s handling of COVID-19.
A Facebook page entitled “Cypress Teachers for Safe Re-Opening,” has more than 1,600 members and describes itself as a space for local teachers to brainstorm ways to stay safe during the school year.
Despite its outward appearance of providing adequate safety measures for returning students, CFISD has not yet provided any detailed plan on how it will respond to an outbreak of COVID-19 at a school. “A campus or the district may be closed by Harris County Public Health due to COVID-19; however, they have not yet provided metrics or guidance on what will prompt a closure,“ Leslie Francis, Assistant Superintendent for Communication and Community Relations explained to the Signal.
CFISD currently plans to only allow a school to close for a maximum of five days before reopening again, according to Francis — a period of time teachers interviewed said is not enough to ensure the safety of the community. Most health organizations recommend a minimum period of 14 days for quarantine since that is the time needed to track if symptoms can develop.
“Part of the code of ethics I signed up for is not putting kids in danger,” one high school teacher said. “Teaching would be putting students in danger by virtue of us all being there.”
Inside the school halls, a portion of teachers are openly flouting the guidance to wear masks while indoors. Some are even openly speculating that the virus may be a political conspiracy.
“Don’t worry, as soon as this election is over, this virus will disappear,” one teacher remembers hearing during a training session from another educator, hinting that the virus was invented by the Democratic Party in order to sabotage Donald Trump’s chances at re-election.
Exposing a Class Divide
Diana Alexander, a diagnostician within Cy-Fair, is worried that the inevitable outbreaks inside the schools could have a cascade effect in Houston and beyond while disproportionately affecting poorer families. “I worry about their ability to access healthcare,” she said, adding that it’s “not just about the impact that it can have within the school but within the community because of community spread.”
“Our community already is in an outbreak,” Alexander noted grimly.
As CFISD pushes for individual schools and administrators to create and enforce their own safety protocols, bias and myopia is creeping in.
Some teachers interviewed reported that their administrators will be refusing to enforce mask mandates for students in the school, while others relay that school principals are basing their social distancing guidelines off the errant idea that 3 feet of distance between students is adequate.
Attitudes about the in-person versus digital learning appear to fall along socioeconomic lines.
In the more affluent areas of Cypress, which CFISD serves, parents are increasingly choosing to send their children to schools, while poorer areas have seen more opting for digital learning.
In a map provided to the Signal, 65 percent of the students from the wealthy Bridgeland High School plan on attending school in-person, while only 29 percent of the poorer Cy-Lakes High School plan on doing the same.
Poorer schools also report having higher union density compared to the more affluent schools, contributing to the emerging dynamic that the less influence the AFT has over a school’s safety policies, the more likely it is to have less restrictive guidelines.
While the chaotic assemblage of reopening plans continues to confuse, confound, and terrify Cypress educators, the possibility of a critical shortage of teachers looms large.
“We were already on the brink of a national teacher shortage” before the pandemic hit, Nikki Cowart said. And while official numbers have yet to be released, droves of teachers are considering taking early retirements or quitting to protect themselves and their families.
Schools have already begun to hire permanent substitute teaching staff to enter into classrooms where a teacher has had to quarantine or has gotten sick. The substitutes themselves, teachers point out, may end up exacerbating rather than alleviating the coming crisis.
“They’re going to be absolutely amazing super-spreaders if they get sick,” a high school English teacher said.
“I’m afraid we’re going to see a teacher-shortage crisis for years to come,” Cowart warned. “Our kids will pay the price for a decade or more.”
Ty Joplin is a freelance journalist
Photo: George Frey/Getty Images