‘We had hit a wall’: How a Cy-Fair teachers union came to sue the school district

Nikki Cowart is a Cy-Fair ISD graduate, district parent and has been the president of the Cy-Fair American Federation of Teachers since 2010. She said until recently, she never imagined taking legal action against the school district.

The local union representing 2,000 teachers, school nurses, bus drivers, food service workers, custodial staff and campus police officers was granted a temporary restraining order in Harris County District Court on Aug. 14, briefly allowing it the option to partake in professional development remotely.

Prior to this order, CFISD had mandated three weeks of in-person professional development, which the union claimed in a lawsuit was a violation of local health orders that put teachers at an unnecessary risk of being infected with COVID-19.

“Quite frankly, it was unprecedented for our leadership to even entertain the thought of doing any type of litigation ... but we really felt like we had hit a wall,” Cowart said. “We were able to speak to teachers that were terrified to go back for [professional development]. A lot of colleagues, though, just wanted the choice.”

The suit came after dozens of teachers went to the school board with their concerns about being required to appear on campus despite professional development being mostly virtual, but the district did not change its plans.

Until this point, Cowart said the local AFT chapter has had a positive relationship with CFISD, and she said she has considered board members personal friends. Superintendent Mark Henry and Cowart have both acknowledged they do not always agree on everything, but they do their best to work together for the best interests of all employees.

CFISD officials have not responded to a request for comment regarding the litigation as of the publication of this article, but Leslie Francis, assistant superintendent for communication and community relations, said several new protocols are in place this year. These include daily health self-screenings, increased cleaning of surfaces, and the requirement of face masks and desk shields for students and teachers, among others.

"Professional development provides teachers the opportunity to become familiar with the new CFISD Connect remote platform, as well as the numerous and significant health and safety protocols we are implementing for students and staff," Francis said in an email.

Henry tweeted about his appreciation for employees and union members following the filing of the suit.

“From day one, we asked Dr. Henry, Chief of Staff Teresa Hull and the other Cy-Fair ISD leaders to have a seat at the table, to keep open lines of communication, to have some of our members represented on the safety committee,” she said. “We just wanted to work collaboratively like we always have with the school district.”

Over the last decade, Cowart has been recognized for her efforts not only by the school district, but by the Texas Legislature for her advocacy and support of public education.

Taking legal action

CFISD has been closed for in-person instruction since spring break due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Cy-Fair AFT members have been looking forward to being back with students as long as it is safe to do so, Cowart said.

But when campuses started releasing professional development calendars, Cowart said she was concerned about certain planned activities such as scavenger hunts and other group gatherings. According to an internal survey of its members, 60% wanted to do professional development remotely, and 36% simply wanted to be given a choice.

“I get it—employer-wise, you’re trying to do things ... the way that you always have,” Cowart said. “We just felt like we’re still in the middle of a pandemic with hot spots throughout Harris County. We cannot operate the way we always have.”

Cowart recalls one teacher who has had several miscarriages, is in the midst of her first healthy pregnancy and has been quarantining at home for five months to protect her baby. That teacher ended up leaving early from the first day of professional development due to an anxiety attack, she said.

So during the week leading up to Aug. 14, Cowart said she presented some of these calendars and feedback from teachers to a legal team to discuss what options teachers had. She said the attorneys thought the union had a solid case, and they advised pursuing a temporary restraining order so employees would not be required to report to campuses if they did not feel safe.

Cowart said she felt this was in the best interest of union members and employees districtwide, but said that does not mean she enjoyed taking the action. Just before filing, the head attorney let her know they planned to name school board trustees in the suit.

“My heart stopped momentarily,” Cowart said. “My peers that are elected to this board—I have worshiped with them, I have served in volunteer roles for a decade with them.”

Cowart said she immediately called the lawyer and convinced the team to keep the board members’ out of the litigation since they never specifically voted on the plan for professional development calendars.

The suit was filed Aug. 14, citing guidance from Harris County Public Health that said it was not yet safe for local schools to open, and the temporary restraining order was granted. The local chapter was backed with support from the national AFT union.

CFISD quickly appealed the restraining order, and the Texas Supreme Court allowed it to be suspended. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released a statement supporting district administration.

Social media posts from district parents and staff became toxic with harsh name-calling and even death threats against district officials, Cowart said.

The district retweeted several tweets from district employees who were not concerned about returning to campuses and used the hashtag #aftdoesntspeakforme, including the following:

Cowart said she felt many did not fully understand the intentions of union members. They did not intend to avoid working, eliminate face-to-face learning this fall or affect students in any way—they only wanted teachers to have a voice and a choice in returning to campuses for professional development, she said.

“It was never going to be an us vs. them or a political power push,” Cowart said. “That was never discussed internally with the Cy-Fair AFT board or myself as a local president. That was never what it was about.”

Professional development continues

Now that professional development sessions have resumed, Cowart said many union members have shared positive feedback about campus administrators implementing social distancing and the use of face masks.

“Some of these principals have really went above and beyond and are doing all that they can to assure not only staff, but students, parents and all in the community,” she said.

One AFT member was considering resigning from the district due to health concerns, and their principal invited them to walk through the campus together to see safety measures in place and discuss specific concerns.

However, other members have reached out to Cowart saying other principals were not enforcing safety measures during professional development. Cowart said she hopes administrators begin consistently enforcing measures laid out in the district’s reopening plan before students return Sept. 8.

No Cy-Fair AFT members were asked to be part of the district’s reopening committee developing this plan, although Cowart said union representatives were invited to hear aspects of the plan on a Zoom call with Henry in July. Cowart commended the district for acting quickly once the pandemic hit to allocate funding specifically for new expenses related to COVID-19 and for purchasing Chromebook devices for all students this fall.

“Hands down, there are components to the safely reopening plan that are brilliant for students and families,” she said. “There were just safety measures that weren’t [implemented] across the board at all campuses for the safety of our teachers and staff.”

Moving forward

Cy-Fair AFT has lost several members this year who notified the district they would be resigning from their positions due to health concerns for themselves or their families.

However, Cowart said in the days following news about the temporary restraining order, the union has gained more than 200 new members. She said the group will continue advocating for all district employees and is hopeful about working with district officials again in the future.

“We hope going forward that we can resume some collaborative work and get a seat at the table,” she said.

While this whole process has taken an emotional toll on all parties involved, Cowart said, she does not regret standing up for her members and doing her best to make them feel safe at work.

Her one regret was not reaching out to Henry before filing the suit and having him learn about it through his own legal team, she said.

“It’s been very traumatic for some of our members, too. This was never seen as a victory—it was just more so a pause button,” Cowart said. “We are not in a battle stance at this point. We are strictly advocating for safe reopenings like we always have for teachers, staff and students alike.”
By Danica Lloyd

Editor, Cy-Fair

Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in 2016. As editor, she continues to cover local government, education, health care, real estate, development, business and transportation in Cy-Fair. Her experience prior to CI includes studying at the Washington Journalism Center and interning at a startup incubator in D.C., serving as editor-in-chief of Union University's student magazine and online newspaper, reporting for The Jackson Sun and freelancing for other publications in Arkansas and Tennessee.