The chancellor of D.C.’s public school system announced Monday that he will abandon plans to bring thousands of mostly high-needs elementary students back to classrooms next week after talks with the teachers union collapsed. The reversal came as educators staged a sick-in, forcing the cancellation of online lessons.

Even as other big-city districts in the country have found ways to bring at least some students back into classes during the coronavirus pandemic, Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said D.C. Public Schools will probably continue virtual learning until 2021.

Ferebee blamed the Washington Teachers’ Union’s insistence that all teachers be given the option of working from home. The union said Ferebee and the mayor failed to adequately bring parents and teachers into reopening discussions.

The union and the school system have clashed about how and when to bring students back to school buildings since the regionwide closures in the spring to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Ferebee had previously said he would move forward with reopening even if he did not strike an agreement with the union. But on Monday he acknowledged he would not have enough staff.

He pointed to the difficulty posed by a recent labor board ruling, which said that the school system could not use information collected on a key survey to determine which teachers are able to work in person.

“Our plans were blocked,” Ferebee said. “We did not have the ability to utilize our staffing model.”

The turmoil around schools comes as the city is experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases, adding to teachers’ doubts about returning to classrooms.

The reopening plan had come under criticism from a number of players in the system, including principals, who feared the effort to staff the small in-person elementary school classes would disrupt the majority of students who would still be doing virtual learning. D.C. aimed to bring back 7,000 elementary students for in-person learning next week, with priority going to thousands of students who are homeless, learning English as a second language or have special-education needs.

At the same time, the union demands go beyond what teachers in other cities have insisted upon. For instance, the Washington Teachers’ Union wants all members, regardless of their health or living situation, to be able to opt out of in-person teaching. Guidelines published by the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union, demand accommodations for staff who are at “high risk for serious health problems or death” if they contract the coronavirus.

Ferebee said that in-person learning should be optional only for teachers who are considered high risk, or live with someone who is, although he had indicated the city would try to accommodate those who have other obstacles to returning, including a lack of reliable and safe transportation.

Teachers and parents say the negotiation process has been marred by long-standing mistrust between teachers and school leadership.

“It’s a temporary win,” Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis said in an interview. “We really need to get the chancellor to understand that this planning on how to reopen schools — they cannot simply leave parents and teachers out of the equation. This idea that you have to trust the chancellor and mayor? Parents are not trusting that.” 

Unions have played a big role in negotiating reopening plans in many big cities, and have helped keep them closed in some, such as Chicago. But most of the country’s largest districts are either open for full or partial in-person learning, or are planning to do so. In some cases, such as New York City, they have successfully negotiated terms. In others, unions do not have bargaining authority, and schools are able to open without their buy-in.

In Northern Virginia, teacher associations have protested vehemently against going back to the classroom, calling it unsafe and citing spiking virus cases nationwide. Many school systems in the area began bringing back small groups of students in mid-October, targeting vulnerable children — those with disabilities or English language learners — first.

But partly in response to parent calls for reopening, districts are moving to return much larger groups of children. This means they will have to return many more staffers — and sets the stage for a conflict with teachers.

Maryland’s two largest school districts, in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, have kept the school year all virtual so far.

Ferebee told families that all students will begin the second quarter of the academic year on Nov. 9 with virtual learning.

At a news conference Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said that the city has made “incredible” improvements to school buildings but that the system needs staff to return to reopen them.

“The teachers union has indicated that teachers won’t show up,” Bowser said. “So we have to make some adjustments to the timeline to ensure the workforce is in place.”

Ferebee said he still plans to reopen classrooms this academic year and believes he has the authority to mandate that staffers return to in-person learning.

But it’s unclear how much power he has if teachers are willing to quit. The country has a national teacher shortage, and it would be difficult to replace them, particularly those with specialized degrees.

“The lack of engagement on behalf of Ferebee and Bowser with families, students and teachers has been appalling,” said Tyler Dashner, a seventh-grade teacher at MacFarland Middle School. “You are asking us to go back and put our lives on the line and not asking for our input in the plan. That feels pretty egregious to us.”

Ferebee said that 2,000 families had accepted seats for in-person learning before the city canceled plans. He said the school system stopped asking families more than a week ago as he struggled with union negotiations; he anticipated more families would have accepted seats. Families of students with high needs in Ward 8 — the area with the highest concentration of poverty — showed the most interest in going back to classrooms, Ferebee said.

The school system had also planned to bring back an additional 14,000 elementary students to CARE classrooms, where students would participate in virtual learning under the supervision of nonteaching staff. The chancellor said he still planned to continue with these classrooms once he has staffing lined up and would give priority to students at high risk for academic failure.

The chancellor faced criticism after he said he would use middle and high school staff members to staff the CARE classrooms. He said he still planned to pull staff from secondary schools but said he would no longer reassign certain positions, including assistant principals.

“We commit to supporting our students, families, teachers, and staff in our urgent mission to safely reopen schools,” Ferebee wrote in his letter to families Monday morning. “We have heard feedback from many in our community about #ReopenStrong plans, and we will use this moment to adjust our timeline and staffing plans for reopening.”

Ferebee’s announcement arrived hours after teachers across D.C. called in sick Monday to protest. The “sick-in” was widespread, and principals were forced to cancel classes. One principal told families that more than 30 teachers at her school had called in sick.

The chancellor’s decision could complicate the situation for charter schools, which educate nearly 50 percent of the city’s public school children and look to the school system for reopening guidance. About a third of charter schools are offering some form of in-person learning, city officials have said.

The union also announced Monday that more than 90 percent of the 1,200 members who took part in a vote last week said they had “no confidence” in the school system’s plan.

City officials have stressed that, despite Monday’s announcement, school buildings are safe for students. The school system spent more than $20 million to upgrade the HVAC systems and said every elementary classroom is equipped with a medical-grade air filter.

Ferebee and Davis have been working on an agreement for months, including on the safety protocols that should be in buildings when they reopen — and have settled many of those points.

Ferebee has said he is negotiating in good faith but cannot meet all the teachers’ demands.

“Despite negotiations throughout the weekend, we’re disappointed that we were not able to come to an agreement,” Davis said in a statement. “The Chancellor’s plan to reopen our schools to in-person learning will disrupt the education of a vast majority of DCPS students. As educators, we do not believe this plan is good for our students or good for our schools.”

Doug Gordon, the parent of two elementary school students, said he is frustrated that city leaders keep making changes as parents try to make plans of their own. “It’s just another in a series of frustrating setbacks,” Gordon said. “Time and time again the chancellor and mayor propose a plan without the input of stakeholders, and time and time again the plan falls through.”

Although teachers called in-sick Monday, Davis told teachers in an email that they should “stay in touch with students via text messaging, phone calls, emails, or Zoom meetings and be available to help with assignments so as to keep students engaged and instruction continuing.”“We do not want the appearance that we are abandoning our students,” she wrote.

Principals also wrote their families Monday, informing them that classes may be canceled and explaining why teachers were calling in sick. Students were still expected to complete academic work Monday.

“Some of our teachers and staff took off today, not because they do not care about students and families; in fact it is the opposite,” the principal of Roosevelt High wrote to families. “Those who choose to participate are using this as an opportunity for a cause that they believe in which will ultimately help ensure safety and the best education possible.”

Alysia Lutz, principal at Janney Elementary in Northwest Washington, told parents that she would inform children that teachers are sick, but are okay. She said she would explain that “teachers are calling out sick today to make sure other adults know how they feel about something — they are making their opinions, or their views, known.”