Vaccine mandate still a must, says Barrington school official

Terminated teachers’ hearing is Jan. 27

By Josh Bickford
Posted 1/18/22

The last few weeks have not swayed Gina Bae’s confidence in the district’s vaccine mandate — the chairwoman of the Barrington School Committee believes as strongly as ever in the …

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Vaccine mandate still a must, says Barrington school official

Terminated teachers’ hearing is Jan. 27

Posted

The last few weeks have not swayed Gina Bae’s confidence in the district’s vaccine mandate — the chairwoman of the Barrington School Committee believes as strongly as ever in the requirement. 

During an interview on Friday afternoon, Jan. 14, Ms. Bae said the experience of dealing with the challenges posed by the recent spike in Covid-19 cases — likely attributed to a more highly-transmissible variant — has not lessened her faith in the vaccine mandate.

“No. In fact, for me personally, it reinforces what we’ve been doing all along,” she said.

Ms. Bae said health professionals continue to stress the importance of getting vaccinated and, when possible, receiving the booster. She added that new guidance and protocols issued by the CDC and the Rhode Island Department of Health offer clear benefits to those who are vaccinated — shorter times for isolation and fewer quarantines. (The Barrington School Department continues to employ a 10-day quarantine for those who test positive, compared with a five-day quarantine established by the CDC and DOH.)

Despite the vaccine mandate for staff and one of the highest vaccination rates among students in the state, Barrington High School was forced to switch to distance learning earlier this month. 

In a letter to the school community, BHS Principal Joe Hurley wrote that the change was due to the high number of cases among the high school staff. A later email from the school department stated that nine Barrington High School staff members and 109 students had tested positive in the first week of January. 

On Thursday, Jan. 13, after a five-day break from in-person learning, students and staff returned to the high school. 

Post-termination hearing

Three teachers refused to follow the district’s vaccine mandate, and on Jan. 1, they lost their jobs. 

Kerri Thurber, Brittany DiOrio and Stephanie Hines, teachers at Barrington Middle School, Sowams School and Hampden Meadows, respectively, filed religious exemption requests for the mandate, but Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore denied the requests. Mr. Messore said the teachers’ unvaccinated status would create an undue burden for the district. 

In late October, the teachers attended a pre-termination hearing and offered a compromise, they said they would continue to follow the district’s previous protocols and wear N95 masks and participate in weekly testing. 

But three members of the school committee — Ms. Bae, Erika Sevetson and Dr. Megan Douglas — ruled that those measures were not enough. They said officials needed to do everything possible to ensure the health and safety of all students, that some students and staff might be immunocompromised, and that there had been plenty of advance notice about the mandate.

School committee member Patrick McCrann voted against terminating the teachers’ employment at the hearing. He said there were other alternatives the school department could take instead. Barrington School Committee member Amanda Basse Rego did not attend the hearing.

The teachers appealed the ruling, and a post-termination hearing was initially scheduled for Dec. 16, but just a day prior, school officials filed a request for a continuance. The request cited two reasons — the first was a threat written on a bathroom wall at Barrington High School, and the second was that administrators did not have the time needed to prepare for the appeal hearing.

The appeal hearing was pushed to Jan. 6 initially, and, more recently, scheduled for Jan. 27. The post-termination hearing will be held online, as the town manager’s current executive order prohibits any meetings to be held in-person. 

The teachers have also filed a lawsuit against the Barrington School Committee in Rhode Island Superior Court. 

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.