School Safety

Cy-Fair Teachers Must Return to Work, State Supreme Court Says

The latest in Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's back-to-school saga.

By Catherine Wendlandt

Updated 2:45 p.m. Aug 17 

In-person schooling is happening in Cy-fair, whether you like it or not. Or so says Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. 

On Friday, August 14, a Cy-Fair ISD teachers union won a temporary restraining order to prevent the district from forcing teachers to report for in-person professional development training. On Sunday, August 16, the Texas Supreme Court halted that restraining order given by a Harris County district court judge, effectively forcing district teachers to return to work, although most of the union's case is still pending, according to the Houston Chronicle.

On Monday, Paxton released the following statement: 

“Friday was supposed to mark the return to campus for Cy-Fair teachers and staff who were preparing to start the new school year and welcome back kids, until a trial court unlawfully ordered the campus shut down at the request of a teachers’ union. The trial court’s order exceeds its jurisdiction and grants relief contrary to the laws of Texas. Teachers’ unions have no authority to override the decisions of schools administrators about how to return to school safely.”

He also filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Texas Supreme Court contending that the trial court that granted the restraining order acted outside its authority. "It reached outside its jurisdiction to usurp a school district’s authority to direct its own operations, effectively prioritizing the trial court’s own policy views over the district’s," Paxton states in the brief.

Cy-Fair ISD is the third largest school district in the state behind Houston and Dallas ISDs, with 91 campuses, 116,000 students, and 7,800 teachers and staff, who were supposed to return to school on August 14 for several weeks of training before students returned on September 8. 

“This is a win for safety, health and common sense" said Nikki Cowart, president of the Cy-Fair AFT, in a statement after Friday's win. "It was unsafe to require teachers to come to school campuses for professional development and new teacher orientation--programs that can take place virtually."

Paxton has been especially vocal in pushing for school districts to return to in-person learning this fall, despite the concerns of many about schools potentially further spreading Covid-19. In late July, he criticized local health departments for closing in-person schooling. According to him, the Texas Education Agency guidelines that allows city and county health authorities to shut down schools is meant to curb a current outbreak. Although the statement was not legally binding, he was quickly backed up by TEA officials, who reversed their guidelines yet again to leverage school funding over the issue. Now school districts won’t receive state funding if the schools opt to remain physically closed because of any local mandates, although they can get permission from the TEA to remain closed for up to eight weeks. 

On July 31, Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in and backed up Paxton and the TEA, releasing a statement saying the authority on how schools reopen comes from the school boards, although they can base their decisions on local health authorities' recommendations. In a press conference on August 11, the governor reiterated that when and how schools should reopen is best left up to the local school boards because leaving the power in their hands provides “the local school districts the flexibility they need.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner, however, openly criticized Paxton's July statement. “With all due respect to the attorney general,” he said on July 31, “there is no way under the sun that I would send even my child to school if the numbers are the same or worse by the end of August.”

Meanwhile, of the Houston-area districts that started school today—a list that includes Splendora ISD, Fort Bend ISD, Aldine ISD, Angleton ISD, East Chambers ISD, High island ISD, Hitchcock ISD, Spring ISD and Sweeny ISD—only Humble (in some cases) and Splendora ISDs are attending in person. Students will also return in person to Katy ISD (though they may opt for online learning as well) on Wednesday. According to the current TEA guidelines, schools may open the first four weeks of the year virtually, but must apply for extensions after that in order to keep their state funding intact. 

Updated 10:30 a.m. July 29

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday county closures of in-person schooling (including Harris County's order which was issued by local health authorities Umair Shah and David Persse on July 24) until September might not be legal. According to Paxton, the TEA guideline that allows health authorities to shut down schools is meant to curb a current outbreak, not to prevent a future one. Although his statement wasn't legally binding, after Paxton spoke out, the TEA reversed its guidelines: Now school districts won’t receive state funding if it remains closed because of a local mandate, according to the Texas Tribune. Districts can remain closed for up to eight weeks if they receive permission from the TEA. 

Updated 12:30 p.m. July 24

All public schools and non-religious private schools must postpone in-person instruction until at least September 8, Harris County Judge Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Friday. Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah and Houston Health Department Health Authority David Persse will sign the order Friday afternoon. Last week, the TEA announced that schools can shut down in-person instruction through the entire semester without losing funding if a local health authority orders it. "More likely than not September 8 is too soon," Hidalgo said, "but we're going to aim for that goal."

Across the county, there are all most 1 million students, including more than 210,000 students in HISD alone. Hidalgo said she doesn't want to shut down the schools, but the county needs to get the virus in order. "I owe everything in my life to public schools," she said. "The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick and mortar representation of the American dream."

With 900,000-plus students across the county, "it is not safe" to send them back to schools, Shah said. "Those very children are dependent on all of us as adults," Shah said, to make the right choice and ensure they can have the same sort of  "normal" childhood their parents had. 

"We also hear that children don't get COVID-19," Shah said, addressing rumors that children aren't severely affected by the virus. "That is not true." Kids can get the virus, and they can spread the virus, even if their symptoms are mild. Dr. David Persse, the health authority of the Houston Health Department, reminded people how often they get sick when their children get sick. He talked about getting a cold several times a year when his daughter was in school. Even if a child does get a mild form of the virus, they can unknowingly infect their family members.

"Closing the schools is really a strategy to buy us more time," Persse said, using a school bus analogy for getting the virus under control. "This school bus right now is now longer accelerating," he said. "Maybe it's not accelerating." 

"But either way, this school bus is going 100 miles per hour, and there's a curve ahead."  

Updated 5:30 p.m. July 22

With COVID-19 numbers rapidly rising across our region and our state, it seems treacherous to send students back to schools. But, in spite of many calls to keep schools closed—including from Mayor Sylvester Turner—Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered that schools be open for in-person instruction across the state when the fall semesters start up in the coming weeks.

As the 2020-2021 school year approaches—and the situation changes, which will likely happen as rapidly as everything else we've been seeing this year—we’re keeping a running list of how schools and colleges in the Bayou City region are approaching the new school year as safely as possible. If you go to any one of these schools, and receive news that’s something’s changed, or if you don’t see your school on this list, email Catherine Wendlandt at [email protected] 

Texas Education Agency

After public outcry over the initial issuance of strict rules regarding in-person instruction and state funding, the TEA has now eased restrictions on schools. On Friday, the state agency announced that school districts may begin the academic year online for the first four weeks without penalizations in funding—as opposed to three previously—and schools may apply for an additional four weeks to be virtual after that, so long as a small portion of students are being taught on-site during that second month-long period. Additionally, if a local health authority mandates it, schools may be closed for in-person classes for the entire fall semester without losing funding. 

Public schools

Aldine ISD

Classes will begin August 17. The district is offering two options for schooling: Learning On Campus (assessments will be completed online, though) and Learning At Home. If students enroll in the virtual option, then they will remain virtual for the first nine weeks of the semester. They can opt to continue Learning At Home for the entire school year. 

Alief ISD

The school year will begin 100-percent virtually on August 6. In-person classes will be phased in, depending on COVID-19 numbers. “The data does not look good, and it is not anticipated to look good for a while,” Alief ISD superintendent HD Chambers said in a July 9 video message. “I just can’t see how bringing a large number of students and a large number of adults—staff members—into a school is going to help slowing the spread of the virus.”

Cy-Fair ISD

The school year will begin on August 24. Plans on in-person and remote learning options will be released on July 27.

Fort Bend ISD

The new school year will begin on August 17. All classes across the district will be online, and will continue to be virtual for at least the first four weeks of the semester. 

Friendswood ISD

The first day of school is August 19. The district will have both in-person and virtual classes. There are two different models of remote classes based on age, PK–5 and 6–12. For in-person classes, masks will be required of all students and staff, and everyone will have to take their temperatures and fill out an electronic form each morning. 

Galena Park ISD

Classes begin on August 17. There are two options: 100-percent in-person or 100-percent remote. All faculty, parents/visitors, and students in grades 1–12 will be required to wear face masks on campus. All employees will be screened for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. Schools will be cleaned and disinfected daily; the district has bought several more intense cleaners, such as electrostatic sprayers and UV-C lights, to do so.

Galveston ISD

Parents can choose between on-site or remote learning. The semester begins on August 24. On campus, all adults and students—“ as developmentally appropriate”—will be required to wear masks; face shields may be used in some situations. Water fountains will be covered up.

Goose Creek CISD

The new school year will start on September 8. Virtual learning will take place for the first three weeks of school. However, students in virtual instruction can still participate in UIL and other extracurricular activities, so long as they meet certain requirements. 

Hempstead ISD

The new school year will begin on August 24 with face-to-face and remote instruction options. The district will post more information in August.


The new school year will begin on September 8 with virtual coursework. Currently, in-person classes are scheduled to begin on October 19, however, that date could be pushed back depending on COVID-19 conditions at the time. Parents also have the option to continue virtual learning throughout the entire first semester (through January 29) or the entire school year (through June 11).

Humble ISD

The school year begins on August 11 with three instruction options: on-campus, online, or online instruction/UIL Athletics and Fine Arts on campus (for middle and high school students). Depending on the trajectory of the virus, middle and high schools will open at 100-percent or 50-percent capacity. (It's not clear when this decision will be made.) Faculty and students are not required to wear masks.

Katy ISD

The new school year will start on August 19 with two options for students: in-person instruction or attending the Katy Virtual Academy (KVA), which will involve live, real-time, instruction between students and teachers online. Students who enroll in KVA can opt to go back to in-person classes at the end of any grading period. All faculty and students in grades 4–12 will be required to wear face masks on campus, and younger students will be encouraged to wear them.

Klein ISD

Parents may choose between on-campus or online instruction for the semester, which begins on August 19. If a parent opts for online classes, then that is a commitment for the first quarter of the school year (through October 7). All students, grades Pre-K through 12th grade, will be required to wear face masks on buses and in hallways, common areas, and classrooms.

Magnolia ISD

The new school year begins on August 12. Parents can choose between face-to-face learning on campus and remote learning. Schools will undergo nightly deep-cleanings, and desks will be cleaned at the end of every class period. Everyone student age 10 and older is required to wear masks. Students may fill their water bottles from drinking fountains, but they will not be allowed to physically drink from them. Remote learning will feature a combination of live instruction from teachers and independent learning. All students who want to switch to in-person lessons must wait until the end of the grading period and give two weeks’ notice. 

Pasadena ISD

Classes start August 18; the school district will offer virtual and in-person classes. Virtual lessons will not require students and teachers to engage in a lesson at the same time. Face-to-face instruction will involve a blended method of in-person lessons at school and virtual platforms. Similar to Spring ISD, the district is implementing COVID-19 Action Levels. There are four levels: minimal, moderate, significant, and substantial transmission. Face masks will only become mandatory at the significant transmission level. High school students participating in virtual instruction but enrolled in weighted accelerated/advanced courses must report to campus at designated times to take exams.

Pearland ISD

The semester will begin on August 19 with on-campus and remote instruction options available. Remote instruction will involve two-way, live lessons between teachers and students (mostly core classes), as well as independent learning. All students will be encouraged to self-screen for COVID-19 every morning, while faculty will be required to self-screen daily. Every person on campuses will be required to wear a face mask. Locker usage will be limited and shared toys in classrooms will be removed.

Spring ISD

The new school year will begin virtually on August 17. The district is developing two learning options for students, "Safety-First In-Person" and "Empowered Learning At-Home." With "Empowered Learning At-Home," students will learn remotely five days a week. With the "Safety-First In-Person" model, the number of days per week students will receive in-person lessons will be based on an Operational Decision Meter, similar to the Harris County Threat Level System. With Spring’s system, there are four levels: Red means there’s a severe threat of the virus; the majority of students will move to remote learning. Orange means there’s a significant threat; grades 3rd through 12th will move to an alternating day schedule, and Pre-K through 2nd grade will move to remote learning. All schools will close on Wednesdays for deep cleaning. Yellow means a moderate threat level; secondary students will follow an alternating day schedule, and elementary students will attend school four days a week. All schools will close on Wednesdays for a deep cleaning. Green means a minimal threat of COVID-19; students will attend school four days a week. All schools will close on Wednesdays for a deep cleaning.

Spring Branch ISD

Spring Branch will start on August 17, but will give parents the option of in-person learning. At the schools, face masks will be required where social distancing cannot be maintained, in hallways and common areas, like bathrooms. All masks “shall be free of any images, words, political slogans, with the exception of an SBISD school or district logo.” The schools will be closed to nonessential visitors, parents, volunteers, and activities involving external groups/organizations for the first semester. Classrooms and bathrooms will be sanitized daily. All students and staff will be asked to self-screen themselves for COVID-19-like symptoms each day.


Lone Star College

Classes begin August 24. All students and instructors must wear masks when inside campus buildings. At all entry points, people must fill out a questionnaire and have their temperatures taken. While in-person classes will be happening in the fall, the college will move them to virtual should the need arise; additionally, the school is offering 4,400 online-only classes in the upcoming semester. The college will also give out PPE and 5,000 free laptops to students in need.

University of Houston

Face masks are required in all indoor common areas—yes, even when you are alone—and outdoor spaces when physical distancing is difficult. The 2020-2021 academic calendar has not been posted yet online. For more “return to campus information,” click here

University of Houston-Downtown

The university is basing the status of its operations on the Harris County Threat Level System. On Level 1 (severe, uncontrolled community transmission), all classes will be moved online, and only critically essential personnel will be allowed on campus. Currently, classes are set to begin on August 24; the vast majority of classes (80–85 percent) have been moved to online-only, and the remaining classes will be held in-person with limited students and social distancing. There are four class options: online, online interactive, hybrid, and face-to-face. Faculty and students on campus will be required to wear masks, and face shields in some cases. Most of the classes at UHD’s satellite campuses have been moved online, and all in-person instruction will be moved online after Thanksgiving, as will finals.

University of St. Thomas

Classes will begin on August 24, and will offered in-person and online. The university is getting deep-cleaned, and new “ventilation systems, temperature taking, symptom checks, and contact tracing protocols are in progress,” according to an open letter by UST President Richard Ludwick. 

Rice University

The semester will begin on August 24, and instruction will end on November 20. Finals will be held virtually; the last day of the semester is December 16. The maximum in-person class size will be 25 students; any class larger than that size will be held online, and in-person classes will also be available online. Some in-person classes will be held outside and in tents as well.

Texas Southern University

The university has shortened its semester to 13 weeks so that everything is done by Thanksgiving. School will begin on August 19, and the last day of classes is November 13. Graduation will be held on November 21. Face masks are required on campus. The university is offering students three different class format options face-to-face (in-person, class sizes and density have been reduced), hybrid (a face-to-face-online combo), and online only. 

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