As Harris County health officials continue to confirm nearly 1,000 new COVID-19 cases each day, Cy-Fair ISD officials are preparing to open campuses’ doors to thousands of students and staff members this fall.

District parents have the option to either send their children back to campuses for instruction or have them learn remotely from home. As of Aug. 6, officials said 34% of students plan to attend in person, while 43% intend to engage virtually, but Aug. 25 will be the last chance for parents to change their selections until after the first grading period.

The school year was initially slated to start Aug. 24, but the board approved postponing until Sept. 8 at a July 21 board meeting. Superintendent Mark Henry said delaying the start of in-person instruction will provide more time for the district to obtain devices and for the community to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“I’ll just tell you right up front there’s no good answer,” he said to parents and teachers who shared a range of concerns with both virtual and in-person instructional plans during the July 21 meeting. “If there was a good answer, if there were an easy answer, we would lay it out for you, and everyone would be happy. But there are no perfect answers.”

Both learning methods include district curriculum that meets state standards; the same grading, attendance and accountability guidelines; required services such as special education, gifted and talented, and English as a second language; and the option to participate in extracurricular activities.

The Texas Education Agency has mandated public school systems offer on-campus instruction for all grades served by a campus for every student, but students may also legitimately earn credit through virtual instruction due to the pandemic.

“There will almost certainly be situations that necessitate temporary school closure due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools,” TEA officials said in June 28 guidance for 2020-21 planning. “Parents, educators and school administrators should be prepared for this in the event that it occurs, while actively working to prevent it through prevention and mitigation practices.”

New safety protocols

Several preventive measures will be in place for staff and students reporting to CFISD campuses, including social distancing in classrooms and common areas and daily health screenings.

Dr. Anu Seshadri, an internal medicine and pediatric physician at the University of California in Los Angeles, said because children who contract the virus do not often exhibit symptoms even when they have COVID-19, procedures such as health screenings might not always be effective.

As of Aug. 10, 10,696 Harris County residents under the age of 20 had tested positive for COVID-19, and one child has died from the virus since March, according to Harris County Public Health.

“When [children] do get infected with COVID-19, most of them don’t even show any symptoms—at least for now,” Seshadri said. “Of course, that will vary if the child is considered high risk, but the personal fear that I have is what they take home and who is at home.”

Face masks will be required for students and staff on school buses, in hallways, in common areas such as cafeterias and in classrooms when social distancing is not feasible. Disposable masks will be provided for students who do not have them, officials said.

On July 21, the board also approved the purchase of plexiglass desk shields for every teacher in addition to shields for student desks and tables where needed. Soap and hand sanitizer dispensers will be located throughout all facilities, and student desks will be sanitized between class periods.

These and other provisions are included in the $10 million set aside in the 2020-21 budget for COVID-19 expenses.

Students and teachers who test positive for COVID-19 will be isolated immediately, and the areas they contacted will be disinfected, according to CFISD Director for Health Services Christiane Bernal. She said whether students or staff would be required to quarantine would vary, and the district would consult with Harris County Public Health to assess what next steps were needed.

“[Quarantining procedure] depends on the prolonged contact that has occurred. Did the teacher wear a mask? Was there social distancing occurring? How long were they together?” she said.

District officials said they hope to receive more specific guidance from Harris County as they continue making decisions leading up to the 2020-21 school year.

“In the meantime, we’re also hoping that our local health authorities will provide more concrete, specific metrics to school districts,” CFISD Chief of Staff Teresa Hull said at an Aug. 6 meeting. “That’s been a challenge. There has not been agreement among local health authorities across the state or across the nation.”

Opting for virtual learning

Families looking to take advantage of the district’s remote program, CFISD Connect, can expect to see improvements over the platform used during the spring semester, Henry said.

“Our virtual platform is going to be 10 times better than it was in the spring, and I know many of you are glad to hear that,” he said.

The district’s virtual learning program through a learning management system called Schoology offers real-time, live instruction during school hours. Depending on the students’ schedules, some electives, such as welding and cosmetology courses, may require students to report to campuses for certain activities, according to the district.

CFISD Chief Technology Officer Paula Ross said the district will have enough devices for all students regardless of need and enough internet hot spots for students who do not have access otherwise by the end of the fall semester. The initiative to purchase 80,000 Lenovo Chromebooks and internet hotspots totaled $44 million.

Due to the pervasiveness of the coronavirus pandemic countywide, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director of Harris County Public Health, recommended local schools start the year off virtually and keep campuses closed until at least October in a July 20 letter to superintendents.

In an online survey released by Community Impact Newspaper, some parents said they are planning to opt for online learning due to health concerns, and others said they want to avoid having their children be part of a continuous cycle of schools opening and closing due to community spread of the coronavirus.

“My child will be learning virtually this year,” CFISD parent Mary Guerra-Mendoza said via the survey. “We made this decision as she has already once before caught the virus, and it was hard to watch her go through it. ... Having all students learning remotely through virtual classes like they had them doing at the end of the school year I think was easier on both the students and teachers.”

Parents, teachers share feedback

While district students have the option to conduct their work remotely, all CFISD teachers will be required to do their jobs on campus regardless of if they are teaching virtually, in-person only or a combination of the two, officials said.

In a survey of 210 CFISD educators published in the summer newsletter from the Cy-Fair chapter of the Texas State Teachers Association, 95% of respondents said they believed teachers should have the choice to work in person or remotely, and 89% said they do not feel safe teaching in person.

The organization’s president, Donna Lord, who is also a CFISD middle school teacher, asked administrators and board members at the Aug. 6 meeting to be transparent when making decisions that will affect thousands of teachers in September.

“Many decisions have been made by the district reopening committee and shared with ... various members of the community—but not with the teachers,” Lord said. “Teachers are hearing specific information from non-official sources about how our classrooms will run, yet most of our principals have not communicated with their staff.”

Seshadri said older teachers and those with pre-existing conditions face added risks. Additionally, teachers have the new responsibility of enforcing social distancing and face mask policies, which could bring stress, she said.

“Personally, I think a teacher that is going to teach kindergartners or first graders are put in a little bit more of a difficult situation compared to one that teaches 11th graders who understand social distancing and face mask policies,” she said. “[Teachers] have to look at their own health status. If you’re a kindergarten teacher and you’re considered high risk, you might consider not returning to school.”

Despite concerns shared by their peers, many parents in Cy-Fair are ready to return to school routines.

Cindy Schluter, the parent of a CFISD senior, said she supports the district’s plan to reopen campuses and plans to send her child back to school.

“We do not have anyone in our household in an at-risk group, and I feel it is critical for kids to be back at school,” Schluter said. “We need the school districts to make decisions based on data and not emotion. Data does not warrant a shutdown for schools.”