Barrington School Committee votes: Unvaccinated teachers are still fired

Committee Chairwoman Gina Bae: 'We stand behind our policy'

By Josh Bickford
Posted 4/1/22

After listening to nearly four hours of testimony on Thursday night, members of the Barrington School Committee voted 4-1 to uphold their previous decision to fire three unvaccinated Barrington …

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Barrington School Committee votes: Unvaccinated teachers are still fired

Committee Chairwoman Gina Bae: 'We stand behind our policy'

Posted

After listening to nearly four hours of testimony on Thursday night, members of the Barrington School Committee voted 4-1 to uphold their previous decision to fire three unvaccinated Barrington teachers.

The educators, Kerri Thurber, Stephanie Hines and Brittany DiOrio, now have the opportunity to appeal the school committee’s decision to the Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner. 

The decision followed detailed and sometimes heated exchanges between the attorneys and witnesses.

Greg Piccirilli represented Thurber, Hines and DiOrio, and spent time questioning Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore and Finance Director Doug Fiore about documents shared with school employees, meetings held with the school committee, and decisions made about the unvaccinated teachers’ religious exemption requests.

In his closing argument, Piccirilli told school committee members that they have had the benefit of the appeal’s delay to think over their Oct. 28 ruling to fire the unvaccinated teachers. He said a lot has changed in the last few months, adding that many people who lost their jobs in other industries for refusing to get vaccinated have been hired back by their companies.

“It’s OK to say maybe we overreacted,” Piccirilli told the committee. “Maybe we were too harsh. Maybe we got advice from people that we want to reconsider.”

Piccirilli said that in the world of labor law, terminating a teacher was the equivalent of capital punishment. Piccirilli said he could go through case law and statutes to argue against the terminations, but instead decided to take a different route.

I’m simply going to appeal to your common sense and decency to reconsider what you’ve done to these people, Piccirilli said. 

The school district’s attorney, Sara Rapport, worked to establish that the school department had sufficiently noticed all employees about the Nov. 1 deadline to be vaccinated. She reminded school committee members that they were only tasked with deciding whether they had good or just cause to terminate the teachers. She said the decision was not about whether vaccine mandates are good, bad or otherwise. 

Shortly after 11 p.m., school committee members returned to the auditorium after about 15 minutes of deliberation. Chairwoman Gina Bae then asked if there was a motion to uphold the decision made at the pre-termination hearing in late October. Committee member Megan Douglas made the motion. Bae, Douglas, Erika Sevetson and Amanda Basse voted in favor while Patrick McCrann voted against. 

“It’s certainly sad, the decision that we had to make. But it was the right decision. We stand behind our policy,” Bae said shortly after the meeting was adjourned. “I’m going to actually just speak for myself. I’m not going to speak for all members of the committee because as you heard tonight the votes speak for themselves. 

“I don’t think anyone could anticipate a pandemic happening in a community that you move to and the decisions you’d have to make relative to that.”

A short time later while standing the Barrington High School parking lot, Piccirilli shared his thoughts about the outcome.

“I would have been pleasantly surprised,” Piccirilli said when asked how he would have felt if the school committee had overturned its previous ruling.

“It’s hard for people to admit that they made a mistake. The law in Rhode Island, it’s a quirky kind of law. You’re asking the same people who voted to terminate you to reconsider their decision. So it’s unusual to get that to change, but I’ve seen it done. They could have recognized that they made a mistake. A lot of people are. United Airlines is hiring people back that they fired. Unvaccinated people. The department of health. I know firefighters are getting their jobs back. 

“Why can’t they? They’re so ingrained in the decision that they made.”

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