“Just Devastating” – Three Teachers Who Sought Religious Exemption From Covid Vaccine Fired In Barrington (RI)
The sincere religious beliefs of Brittany DiOrio, Stephanie Hines, and Kerri Thurber, who were willing to follow safety protocols, were uncontested. The District called their presence an “undue burden.” Says Hines: We are “three Christian women that stood up and said this isn’t in accordance with what we believe. That’s where it hurts the most.”
Barrington, Rhode Island, schoolteacher Stephanie Hines asks me whether we can make our Sunday morning phone call an hour later than I had planned. She needs a little time after church.
But, for Hines, I soon learn, religion isn’t just about going to church once a week on Sundays. It’s about her life and how she lives it, in every detail. She has that in common with the two other Barrington schoolteachers I spoke with, Brittany DiOrio and Kerri Thurber.
The three teachers met this past October through a mutual acquaintance, because they had something else in common: They all needed a lawyer.
Unbeknownst to one another, each of the three teachers had requested a religious exemption from taking the Barrington school district’s mandatory Covid vaccine. On October 18, 2021, all three got a letter from Superintendent Michael Messore denying those requests.
The letter shocked them: As of November 1st, they would be placed on unpaid leave until January 1, 2022, when they would be terminated. They were deeply worried.
All three women are married with children. Their families depend on their income, and just as importantly, the healthcare benefits that come with their jobs. Kerri Thurber was especially worried because at the time, she says, she was the sole breadwinner in her family. Hines’ family depended entirely on her health insurance. “There was no question that we could just wait this out,” she says. The school year was already well underway, so their options were few, if any. “We’re very quiet people.… To have this happen to us,” DiOrio says, was “just devastating.”
Their lives in crisis, the three teachers got together and hired lawyer Greg Piccirilli to represent them at the school committee hearing scheduled ten days later, where they would meet one another for the first time.
To be clear, the school didn’t question the sincerity of their beliefs, but rather determined that because they were unvaccinated, they placed an “undue burden” on the district. At the October 28th “pre-deprivation” hearing, the Committee voted to fire them for refusing the vaccine.
It upheld that decision at a second “post-deprivation” hearing on March 31, 2022, which included witnesses and exhibits as would a courtroom trial. The teachers plan to appeal the ruling.
Barrington is sticking to its “no jab, no job” mandate—one that, compared to other schools’ policies in Rhode Island, is unusually strict. The state’s own Department of Health does not recommend that teachers must be vaccinated. At the March hearing, Piccirilli drove the point home: “No other school district in the State of Rhode Island mandates vaccines for teachers with the penalty, if you are unvaccinated, that you get immediately terminated,” he challenged Messore to agree. As far as they know, the three teachers are the only ones in the state to have been fired for refusing the vaccine.
Barrington’s vaccine policy is even at odds with itself, when it comes to vaccine logic: Teachers who got the initial vaccine but don’t want to take a booster shot have the option to test twice weekly. That arrangement was negotiated by the teachers’ union, DiOrio says. The union did not advocate a similar policy for these fired teachers.
Taken by Surprise
The three teachers say that the decision to fire them came as a shock, because until the beginning of this 2021-2022 school year, they had not been pressured by the administration to vaccinate.
But that was last school year. This year, on essentially no notice to staff, the Barrington School Committee adopted its rigid Covid vaccine mandate.
At the March 31st hearing, the parties disputed the nature of the notice given to teachers in late August of 2021. But there is no dispute that by August 26th of last year, the teachers were already due back in school. Even if the mandate’s terms had been clear, the fired teachers had no time to seek other options.
It was not until September 21st that a letter came from Superintendent Michael Messore. He notified school staff that they would have to vaccinate by November 1st or face disciplinary action that could lead to termination. There was no option to test rather than vaccinate.
Stephanie Hines was taken by surprise. As she would later tell the Providence Journal, she felt “deceived and blindsided” by the announcement of the strict policy.
And once she sent in her request for a religious exemption, Hines was on the principal’s radar—and on tenterhooks. Inevitably, and despite meticulous masking and social distancing, Hines reports coming into contact with “a vaxed teacher who caught COVID from another vaxed teacher.” But though she wasn’t the only one who had that contact, Hines says she was the only teacher who had to quarantine. She predicted correctly that the quarantine would later be used against her at the school committee hearing to justify finding her an “undue burden” on the district.
Coming Through During Covid — No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
The Barrington public schools have a reputation for excellence and teachers were held to the same high standards, even during Covid. When schools first shut down, they worked through a week’s vacation to transition their lessons to Zoom. And when things went back to “normal” the following school year, they still had to make lessons accessible for both in-person and online learning, often at the same time, for students who were home. With masks on both teachers and students, plexiglass barriers, and social distancing, it all added up to “one of the hardest moments of teaching ever,” Hines recalls.
Firing the very people who were there for the school and there for the students throughout the pandemic is an odd way to express appreciation—especially considering the school’s liberal opt-out policy for the unboosted.
And especially considering the extraordinary experiences during Covid each one describes:
Stephanie HinesA native Rhode Islander and reading specialist, Hines never dreamed she would be fired from the job she loved at Hampden Meadows School in Barrington. Neither did her close friends and colleagues. Hired by the school in 2016, she worked one-on-one with small groups of fourth- and fifth-grade students who struggled to read.
When Covid hit, she adapted her materials by creating slides of her lessons, so that both the students at home and those in the classroom could participate. “I just followed the protocols that they put in place,” Hine says. “I had no problem doing that. You do what you’re supposed to do.”
In fact, she says that despite all the barriers between teacher and student—or maybe because of them—she became closer to her students than ever before. “It actually was a year that I felt like I developed the deepest relationships with students. It was like we were going through something together.”
Until she objected to the vaccine, Hines’ teaching record was completely clear. “I was like, I can’t believe this is my life. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t expect it.”
But with her teaching license coming up for renewal at the end of this year, she says, “I feel like I have a scarlet letter on me.”
“My life is very different than it was in October… I was pretty secure in my job. My teaching partner [another reading specialist] and I had a really good thing going … We just personally and professionally connected. To not have that is really hard.”
Kerri ThurberBefore she was fired, Kerri Thurber was a 20-year veteran music teacher at Barrington Middle School. She directed the school chorus, and in years past her students had performed at the Rhode Island State House during the holiday season. She also mentored college students who would come to her classroom for training. At the hearing, she described a warm rapport with both her students and their parents.
During the pandemic, Thurber had to direct a chorus of students who were not in the room with her—they were at home on Zoom. To avoid hearing them sing over one another all at once in a cacophony, she had to mute their voices. So, she could see, but not hear the students. And the students also couldn’t hear one another.
She nonetheless had something to show for herself and her students by the end of the year. To create a “chorus,” Thurber had the eighth-grade students record themselves individually, once a week. She listened to each recording and then synched them all together to create a virtual performance for their graduation.
Thurber misses making music with her students. “That’s really kind of a hole in my heart,” she says, “because that’s a love that I have is to work with kids and to make them better musicians, better people, and that’s missing.”
Brittany DiOrioBrittany DiOrio always wanted to teach in the school district where she grew up, still lived, and her family had deep ties. So when a special education position opened up at Barrington’s Sowams School in September of 2020, she resigned from her position in Pawtucket, RI, even though that meant leaving behind tenure and seniority. It also meant starting a new position with new students during a pandemic. It was worth it to be teaching back home, she relates, at the same elementary school she attended as a child.
DiOrio, who has four degrees and two certifications in her field, says that masking both teachers and students was especially challenging for the special ed teachers: You’re “trying to teach young children how to learn sounds and a crucial part of learning sounds is seeing and hearing clearly what the mouth is doing.” Teaching from behind plexiglass made it even harder, especially for kids with special needs. Meanwhile, like other teachers, she often had several students learning on Zoom to manage at the same time she was teaching the ones in the room. It was one “massive distraction,” she says.
And yet, despite the distraction, DiOrio earned warm praise and high marks in her end-of-year review. The head of the special education department enthused:
A feeling of joyful learning was present during this 30-minute lesson. … Her tone and demeanor projected warmth and care. … The student clearly feels valued and safe to take learning risks.
The “joyful learning” and “warmth and care” in DiOrio’s classroom are what made the Committee hearing “not just about a termination,” as Hines would later put it. “It’s about people. It’s about the students who we’re all here for.”
This has had a huge impact on DiOrio: “It’s just so upsetting … They don’t care. They have zero empathy….”
Good Common Sense and Decency
And that explains why, in his closing statement, Piccirilli appealed not just to the law—the legal claims would also be pursued in court—but to conscience. Calling on the Committee’s “good common sense and decency,” he urged them to admit they were wrong:
The reality of it’s changed in the last few months. You know the Department of Health has dropped the … vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. You know that people are getting their jobs back that have been fired for not taking a vaccine. The world has changed. It’s changed rapidly.
It’s okay to say, you know what, maybe we overreacted. Maybe we were too harsh when this all started. Maybe we got advice from people that we want to reconsider. This is your opportunity to do that.
His pleas fell on cold hearts. I watched the often contentious, four-plus hours of the hearing, while reading along in the transcript, and was hardly surprised at the end: The Barrington School Committee affirmed its decision to fire three good teachers for refusing to take a vaccine to protect the health and safety of school children who are at virtually no risk from the virus it can’t stop.
While the appeals process seems likely to drag on for months, all three teachers earlier this month filed discrimination complaints against both the School Committee and the teachers’ unions. The complaints allege two forms of discrimination. One is based on their being “regarded as” having a disability due to mistaken beliefs about the danger they posed to children or co-workers, or that they would miss more time at work than vaccinated employees. “In fact,” the complaints allege, “the Committee had no medical evidence” to support those beliefs.
The complaints also allege that the teachers were discriminated against because of their religion. All three teachers, the complaints allege, are “Bible-believing Christian[s]” whose bona fide beliefs prohibit them from taking the Covid vaccine.
And those religious beliefs are what the teachers’ case is really about:
“Three Christian women that stood up and said this isn’t in accordance with what we believe,” says Hines. “That’s where it hurts the most.”
[Featured Image – Barrington RI Teachers Fired (L-R): Brittany DiOrio – Stephanie Hines – Kerri Thurber][Photo credit: William A. Jacobson for Legal Insurrection Foundation]DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.