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