The school’s director delivered the news to families on Sept. 23. The charter school in Northwest Washington, Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), still planned to switch to in-person learning in late October.

It was a big deal for a public school in the nation’s capital. The novel coronavirus infection rate in the city was relatively low. Many charter schools — which are publicly funded and privately operated campuses that educate nearly half of the city’s public school population — had not yet announced plans and were waiting on the traditional public school system to make the first move. But by late September, school system officials had not yet announced a plan, although they had indicated they would try to bring students back for the second quarter of the academic year.

So LAMB, a diverse school of more than 500 students and 120 staff members, was one of the first to inform parents that all students would probably have the option of returning to physical classrooms in October for a few days a week.

Then two weeks later, another message went out to families. The school no longer expected to return to in-person learning later that month and instead hoped to bring students into classrooms in January.

The health data hadn’t changed much in the District, but there were logistics that still needed to be figured out, said LAMB Executive Director Charis Sharp. One of the main issues: Teachers did not want to return to classrooms.

The abrupt change of plans at LAMB shows how, on a small scale, teacher reluctance can stop a school from reopening. Despite a new building, a top-notch air-filtration system, a non-unionized teaching staff and families who want to return, LAMB could not start in-person classes.

“Like everyone, we have been barely one step ahead since March. This is all unknown for us,” Sharp said in an interview. “Staff members are afraid that if they say they are unwilling to come back, then they will lose their jobs, and I don’t feel that is a good message to send my staff. If I don’t have enough virtual work for everyone who wants to do that, then I will have to furlough some people.” 

Before initially deciding to reopen, Sharp said she had followed health metrics and listened to experts who said that, with the proper safety precautions, opening school buildings can be safe. LAMB planned to have small class sizes, mask mandates, health assessments and thorough cleaning.

But Sharp said that much of the planning occurred over the summer when staff was not working — and she conceded that school leaders failed to properly field teacher input before announcing that the school would launch an in-person, hybrid model in October.

The school didn’t survey teachers until after the announcement. More than half said they would return only because they feared they would lose their jobs, and 90 percent said they thought returning to school was the wrong decision.

Even without a union, teachers do have leverage in the reopening plans. LAMB teachers have special licenses to lead Montessori and bilingual classes. Sharp said she could not just push out teachers who refused to return and find qualified replacements.

And, even if she could find replacements, Sharp said she wouldn’t want to. She and LAMB parents like their teachers and want them to stay at the school.

Sharp also realized that with the main public school systems in the District and surrounding jurisdictions mostly closed for in-person learning, it was harder to convince her teachers that reopening was the right decision.

“The more important thing to me is that my staff feel safe in whatever we are doing,” Sharp said. “Because if they do not feel that way, they are not going to give me or students their best work — whether that is virtual or in person.”

The challenges at LAMB are playing out as the public school system struggles to reach an agreement with the teachers union to implement its plan to bring back some elementary students to classrooms on Nov. 9.

One LAMB teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the heated debate over the reopening plans, said many staff members are Latino, a demographic that has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Some have lost relatives to the virus. The teacher did not take issue with LAMB’s reopening precautions but said there is not enough firm information to understand the full effects of reopening schools.

While parents said they understand the tough position the school is in, they are frustrated that it does not seem to have a plan. They have pressed school leaders at public meetings to provide the metrics that would trigger schools to reopen and could not get answers.

Mabel Hernandez, a mother of twins in prekindergarten, said she knows staff is working hard, but Montessori and bilingual education doesn’t translate well online. The school has allowed around 40 children who come from low-income families or are at high risk for academic failure to do their virtual learning at school, under the supervision of staff.

Hernandez’s children qualify for this program, and she said that while it has been great for her family, she feels she is taking the risk of being at school without the benefits of the academics.

“It hurts to see when we know early learning happens in these years and I believe we are losing an important window,” Hernandez said. “It’s unsettling. It’s difficult because I feel like the communication piece of it has been missing.”

The school has not taken a survey of parents to see who wants to return since the summer. But Sharp said that most parents wanted to return to school then, with families living in the poorest wards of the city saying they were most likely to opt for all-virtual learning. Last academic year, LAMB’s student body was 38 percent White, 33 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Black and 2 percent Asian, with 9 percent of students identifying with two or more races.

Bill Miras has twin kindergartners at LAMB and wants them to return. He has been sending his children to a private day care in Maryland during the pandemic, but he would rather have them receive a bilingual and Montessori education at LAMB.

He’s frustrated that the school has not explained what it still needs to be able to reopen and what would make teachers feel safe. He worries that nothing will change between now and January, and that the school could remain closed for the academic year.

Miras said that there are families like his who are spending thousands of dollars a month on child care and would rather give that money to LAMB if they knew what the school still needed to reopen.

“The whole point of charter schools is to not be held back by the D.C. school system. But that is what’s happened,” Miras said. “I don’t want to force anyone’s hand here, but there are resources. What can parents do to help?”