Barrington School Committee votes to fire unvaccinated teachers

Dozens attend public pre-termination hearing; teacher: ‘I am shocked. I am sad.’

By Josh Bickford
Posted 10/29/21

The Barrington School Committee moved very close to firing three unvaccinated teachers on Thursday night.

In a 3-1 vote, committee members Gina Bae, Erika Sevetson and Megan Douglas called for the …

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Barrington School Committee votes to fire unvaccinated teachers

Dozens attend public pre-termination hearing; teacher: ‘I am shocked. I am sad.’

Posted

The Barrington School Committee moved very close to firing three unvaccinated teachers on Thursday night.

In a 3-1 vote, committee members Gina Bae, Erika Sevetson and Megan Douglas called for the unvaccinated teachers to be placed on unpaid leave for the next two months. If the teachers do not follow the district’s mandate and get the Covid-19 vaccine in that time, they will be terminated.

The teachers — Brittany DiOrio, Kerri Thurber and Stephanie Hines — requested religious exemptions from the district’s vaccine mandate, but Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore denied their requests.(It is not clear how many district employees could lose their jobs because of the mandate. These three were in the spotlight because they requested public hearings.

“I am shocked. I am sad,” said Ms. DiOrio, who works as a special education teacher at Sowams School. “I’m devastated that no accommodations were made for us, that a decision was made and it’s final. I’m devastated for my students, for my co-workers.”

Ms. DiOrio and the other educators had offered to follow the district’s previous Covid protocols — they would continue to wear N95 masks and participate in weekly testing. 

But three members of the school committee eventually ruled that those measures were not enough. Relying on a vaccine mandate voted through in late August and later communicated to teachers, Ms. Bae, Ms. Sevetson and Dr. Douglas refused to budge.

Dr. Douglas said officials needed to do everything possible to ensure the health and safety of all students. Ms. Sevetson spoke about the chance that some students and staff might be immunocompromised. Ms. Bae said there was plenty of advance notice about the mandate.

Patrick McCrann was the lone member of the school committee to vote against terminating the teachers. (Committee member Amanda Basse Rego did not attend the hearing.) 

Mr. McCrann said there had been no public deliberation about the mandate. He said 97 percent of the staff is already vaccinated. He said the school committee had not exhausted all other options for these teachers. 

“It was really powerful to hear their testimony tonight, to understand the position that they’re in,” Mr. McCrann said following the conclusion of the hearing. 

“It was very difficult to balance how we respect the needs for individuals as much as the needs for public health. That was the crux of the matter tonight. It’s unfortunate this was our one time to do that. We haven’t had a lot of discussion about it … I believe there are other alternatives than to move to this next step right away.”

Ms. DiOrio, Ms. Thurber and Ms. Hines were represented by attorney Greg Piccirilli during the hearing. Mr. Piccirilli said he was “obviously” going to appeal the school committee’s decision.

“Procedurally, I think they’ve made three bad mistakes,” Mr. Piccirilli said of the Barrington School Committee. “The open meetings law. They don’t have the power of school health regulations, only the department of health has (that). And they gave such short shrift to their (the teachers’) reasonable accommodation request. They didn’t even consider it. They didn’t engage in any interactive process that they have to. 

“So, I’m pretty confident that procedurally we’ll be able to get this overturned.”

The appeal will first be heard by the school committee, then, potentially, by the commissioner of education, and finally in the courts.

Ms. Bae, Ms. Sevetson, Dr. Douglas, and Mr. Messore refused to comment following the hearing. They exited through a side door in the cafeteria, escorted by multiple Barrington Police officers while members of the audience shouted out remarks at them. Some hollered out that they were disgusted by the committee’s decisions, others said they would be voted out of office soon, and a chant of “Freedom Not Force” was repeated multiple times.

Not about religious beliefs

Lawyers did most of the talking on Thursday night.

Attorney Jon Anderson, representing the school committee, ran the hearing and quickly disputed Mr. Piccirilli’s request to have all three of his clients sit at the front table at the same time. It appeared school officials wanted to discuss each educator’s request individually. 

Mr. Piccirilli argued that point and called for his clients to sit together, which they did. 

Sara Rapport, an attorney representing Mr. Messore and the district, opened the hearing by saying that school officials were not challenging the teachers’ religious beliefs; all three had applied for religious exemptions to the mandate. 

Ms. Rapport said the teachers’ unwillingness to be vaccinated placed an “undue burden” on the school department. The undue burden was described, in part, as being the potential for the district to have to find substitute teachers for the unvaccinated teachers should they be identified as close contacts. (Later in the hearing, one of the teachers, Ms. Hines, said she was identified as a close contact because two of her fellow teachers — both are vaccinated — had tested positive for Covid-19.)

Ms. Rapport’s comments were met with angry shouts from the crowd of about 50 people inside the middle school cafeteria. 

One person hollered out that the hearing was “disgusting.” 

Another yelled that Ms. Rapport “should have been a politician.” 

A third said the school administrators and their attorneys were “going to hell.”

Mr. Anderson asked the audience to refrain from commenting; in fact there was no public comment period included for the hearing. 

Ms. Rapport cited different court cases that she believed supported the district’s decision to terminate the teachers for not getting vaccinated. Mr. Piccirilli countered with some different cases that opposed the decision. 

Ms. Rapport spoke about an uptick in positive cases. She referenced about 40 recent cases among all staff and students in the schools. (There are approximately 4,000 staff and students in Barrington Public Schools.)

Eventually, Mr. Piccirilli offered a rebuttal to the district’s attorney’s claims. He challenged the school committee’s vote on the mandate, stating that the public was not given notice about the policy change. He said that while the meeting was advertised, the description offered no reference to the vaccine mandate — essentially, people did not have an opportunity to discuss the policy before it was voted upon, he said.

Mr. McCrann later agreed with that comment. He said he took full responsibility for his vote to approve the policy change, but added that more should have been done to alert the public about the discussion surrounding the mandate.

“I think that we all — families, staff, administration — would have been headed for a longer, more open discussion about not just the policy itself, which is the school committee’s decision …but the ramifications of that policy. Both positive ones that benefit our staff, our student health, but also the negative ones as well,” Mr. McCrann said. “We spent a lot of time deliberating about why we were doing this, but we didn’t spend a lot of time talking what would happen. 

“This is what we’re supposed to do,” Mr. McCrann said, of the public hearing, which had been requested by the teachers. “I keep advocating for transparency. I think it’s clear that regardless what side of the issue you’re on tonight, it’s clear people want to be part of these decisions and to be heard. And that’s ultimately what we’re here for, and any opportunity we have for people to speak so we can hear them, whether it’s staff or members of the public, it’s super important that we give them that opportunity.”

Mr. Piccirilli also said the district already has a manual governing school health regulations and in no part of those regulations is there anything giving them the power to mandate vaccines for staff. He said the department of health mandates different vaccines for students, but has not issued any vaccine mandate for teachers. (Only Barrington and Little Compton school districts have vaccine mandates for teachers currently.)

Mr. Piccirilli also said school administrators made no effort to work with the teachers’ requests for accommodations.

Teachers talk

Eventually, the teachers were given a chance to speak. 

They each described their work in the district and the efforts they made to follow the health and safety protocols. Ms. Thurber said she had worked for the district for 20 years and gone above and beyond to ensure a positive learning experience for all her students. 

She said she feels that the district is letting down its students.

Ms. Thurber also questioned the timing of the mandate, and the superintendent’s job in communicating it to teachers. While the school committee voted on the policy change on Aug. 24, some teachers did not learn about the mandate until late September. Ms. Thurber and the other teachers said school officials never contacted them to further discuss their exemption requests.

“I’m saddened, frustrated and I wish they would realize what they’re doing to our families and our livelihood going forward,” Ms. Thurber said, following the hearing.

Ms. Hines was critical of the timing of the mandate, adding that she has already seen a job opening for her position posted online. She said she had been devastated by the situation — she can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t look at her children without crying. 

Ms. Hines also said that the district’s youngest learners will soon be eligible to receive the vaccination.

She asked, “How am I an undue burden?”

Ms. DiOrio told school officials about her qualifications for her job, about her prior glowing performance reviews, about how excited she was to be able to return to Barrington to be a teacher after having grown up in this community. 

She also told school officials that their decision to terminate unvaccinated teachers will serve as a cautionary tale for other educators who may, in the future, consider working in Barrington Public Schools. 

Ms. DiOrio said the district’s decision to terminate the unvaccinated teachers will make it more difficult for her to find work in the future, as the cause for termination will be listed as insubordination. 

Following each teacher’s comments, the crowd cheered. 

“I would just want them (school committee members) to reflect on the decision they made and how it will devastate us, how it will absolutely devastate us and our families,” Ms. DiOrio said after the hearing.

Union’s role

About mid-way through the hearing, a representative from the NEARI teachers union approached the tables, but was rebuffed by Mr. Piccirilli. He said NEARI had no interested in defending the three Barrington teachers. 

The NEARI representative disagreed, stating that the union requested that the school committee not follow the recommendation of Mr. Messore to terminate the three educators. 

Following the meeting, Mr. Piccirilli commented on the NEARI.

“I’m not getting straight answers from them (the union),” he said. “I was told, and all of my clients were told, ‘you’re on your own,’ ‘get your own lawyer,’ ‘we think you should be fired.”

“I’m very surprised they showed up here today. Maybe it’s because I threatened to sue them. And I probably will, for breach of duty for representation, because what the union has done to these people is shameful. Absolutely shameful.”

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