Cy-Fair ISD teachers push for safe working environments in 2020-21

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Protocols implemented in Cy-Fair ISD in 2020-21 to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus include daily self-screenings, one-way hallways, frequent sanitization of surfaces, face masks and desk shields.

Despite these preventive measures, teachers have continued to advocate for CFISD administration to prioritize their safety. Dozens of teachers with health concerns have implored board members and administrators to allow them the option to work from home.

Others have asked officials to consider starting the school year with exclusively virtual instruction as neighboring districts such as Spring, Katy and Houston ISDs have done.

“The education of our students is the No. 1 goal we have, closely followed [by]—if not equal to—the safety of our students and the safety of our staff,” Superintendent Mark Henry said at an Aug. 6 meeting.

Harris County released its own school reopening plan, stating due to high levels of community spread of the coronavirus, schools should only deliver instruction virtually while the county’s COVID-19 threat level system is at “severe.”

Once conditions improve, campuses should gradually phase in face-to-face learning as it is safe to do so, according to the report.

Henry and nine other area superintendents signed an Aug. 17 letter to Harris County Public Health officials, expressing their disagreement with these guidelines.

“As educational leaders ... we cannot support your recommendation that would essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction,” the letter reads.

Teachers take action

Ahead of the start of classes Sept. 8, local teachers union Cy-Fair American Federation of Teachers sued the district for violating local health orders and putting teachers at an unnecessary risk of being infected with the coronavirus by mandating three weeks of in-person professional development, according to litigation filed Aug. 14.

“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,” said Nikki Cowart, a CFISD graduate, district parent and the president of Cy-Fair AFT, which represents 2,000 members. “We were able to speak to teachers that were terrified to go back for PD. A lot of colleagues, though, just wanted the choice.”

Harris County District Court granted the union a temporary restraining order, which the district quickly appealed and was later lifted by the Texas Supreme Court with support from Attorney General Ken Paxton.

But many teachers said they looked forward to being back in the classroom for the first time in nearly six months. Following Cy-Fair AFT’s lawsuit, district employees took to social media, and the official CFISD Twitter account retweeted at least 30 tweets including the hashtag #aftdoesntspeakforme.

“It’s time for the silent majority to speak out and stand up,” Fiest Elementary School teacher Sara Price tweeted Aug. 15. “I am ready to be back on campus and prepare for my students, whether they will be CFISD Connect or on-campus.”

According to district officials, accommodations for immunocompromised employees may include the provision of face shields and air purifiers, stricter enforcement of face masks and a reduced number of face-to-face students. One accommodation that will not be offered barring a government mandate to close campuses is the option to work remotely, said Chairita Franklin, assistant superintendent for human resources.

While telework may be feasible on a short-term basis and neighboring districts such as Humble ISD are offering their teachers this option, Franklin said having all 7,000-plus teachers work from campuses ensures internet connectivity and a consistent experience for students across all platforms.

“Supervisions and observation by supervisors as well as access to teaching materials such as books, instructional technology, laboratory materials, career and technical education resources, for example, make teaching from the building an essential aspect of the job assignment,” she said.

Working on campuses

Franklin said social distancing with face-to-face students can create an obstacle when making accommodations. But with at least 54% of district students expected to participate in CFISD Connect during the first grading period, the online learning platform featuring live instruction from teachers, many have said allowing medically vulnerable teachers to work remotely would be feasible.

Depending on students’ learning platform choices, some teachers will be teaching exclusively virtually or in person, while others will be juggling both simultaneously.

“This is a campus-based decision that takes into account a number of factors, including the number of students who choose on-campus instruction or CFISD Connect, curriculum needs and individual staffing considerations at each particular campus,” said Leslie Francis, the assistant superintendent for communication and community relations.

Regardless, teachers will all be required to deliver instruction from campuses. Only 19 of the district’s 87 campuses anticipate more than 50% of enrollment being on campus, according to district data.

Just days before students were set to return to campuses, some teachers were still concerned certain safety precautions would not be ready in time, including protective equipment for classrooms and isolation areas.

“Even at our campus, we still haven’t received our plexiglass [shields], and that was a promise that the district made to parents,” CFISD teacher Mariah Najmuddin said during a Sept. 3 virtual town hall co-hosted by Cy-Fair AFT. “And I already know that they’re on back order for a lot of schools or we’re going to get a set amount but that might not be enough for every child.”

Cook Middle School teacher Donna Lord, president of the Cy-Fair Texas State Teachers Association, said allowing high-risk teachers to work remotely would lower their risk of contracting COVID-19 and allow those teachers to give students learning virtually their undivided attention.

“There’s a way that this can be done, and it’s unfortunate that it appears the district has dug in so deeply on this, but some of our teachers may not come out of this well,” she said.

Cowart said many union members had positive feedback about campuses implementing social distancing and the use of face masks upon teachers’ return in mid-August, but others reported inconsistent practices.

Cowart and Lord both said they hope administrators consistently enforce these measures by the time students return. In an internal survey, 43% of Cy-Fair TSTA members said they did not feel safe at work during professional development.

“Without those safety protocols in place during these professional development weeks, we fear that they’ll be even more lax once the students come into the building,” Lord said.

Employee options

Being in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy, CFISD teacher Mackenna Coffey said at an Aug. 6 board meeting that she did not feel safe returning to campus. She asked the board and administration to consider allowing staff the option to work remotely.

“I’ve called HR and provided letters from my doctors asking for accommodations,” she said. “I’ve been told that I can take leave or resign. Both options leave our schools looking for someone else to fill in.”

CFISD General Counsel Marney Sims said the district has always had a process in place through which employees can ask for reasonable accommodations if they have medical conditions that put them at risk on the job. Officials advised those with concerns to contact their principals.

“Any employee who, you might have a condition that in a typical situation—maybe during flu season—you’re a little more vulnerable, or you may need to ask for an accommodation of maybe not doing hall duty or something like that,” Sims said.

District officials told Community Impact Newspaper the human resources department documented 217 employee requests for accommodations due to COVID-19 risk concerns throughout the month of August leading up to the start of school. This is in addition “a multitude” of accommodation requests that were handled by campus administrators, Franklin said.

CFISD employees who contract COVID-19 or are advised to quarantine may apply for up to 10 days of paid leave through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is in effect until Dec. 31. Those who are caring for a dependent affected by COVID-19 also might have access to a portion of paid leave.

Board President Bob Covey said the board is looking out for the safety of all employees and students, but other industries are also dealing with workplace changes due to the pandemic.

“I look at people who are having to work in grocery stores, hardware stores, hospitals, restaurants. ... They are working in similar conditions of being around many, many people who may or may not be practicing social distancing,” he said.
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.