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St. Louis teachers sue over school district vaccine mandate

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SLPS hosts 2nd-dose clinic at Vashon

"Is this your first or second shot," asks St. Louis Public Schools Human Resources Officer Charles Burton, left, of 7-year-old Ivy Rowlyk, of St. Louis on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, as she checks in with her mother, Katherine Rowlyk to get Ivy's second Pfizer BioNTech vaccine shot and Katherine's booster during a clinic sponsored by the St. Louis Public Schools at Vashon High School. Although vaccinations were primarily for children aged 5-11, boosters for adults and first doses were available on a limited scale. Most recipients had received their first shot in mid November at Gateway Elementary School. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and Superintendent Kelvin Adams both attended the clinic. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — More than 20 teachers and staff members from St. Louis Public Schools have sued the district’s leaders for suspending or firing them for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

The St. Louis School Board adopted a vaccine mandate last fall for all staff, unless they had a medical or religious exemption. The 22 employees suing the district were denied religious exemptions and placed on unpaid leave or fired last October, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court.

All but two of the staff members were granted the vaccine exemptions in January and allowed to return to their jobs. The group, which includes teachers, substitutes, aides, safety officers, a social worker and a custodian, is asking for three months of back pay along with other damages. The lawsuit also asks the court to find the SLPS vaccine mandate unconstitutional.

The conduct of school district leaders “was outrageous because of the Defendant’s evil motive or reckless indifference to the Plaintiffs’ rights,” reads the lawsuit filed by St. Charles attorney Kevin Kasper.

While other local school districts and public agencies including the city of St. Louis imposed vaccine requirements last fall, most allowed unvaccinated employees to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. St. Louis Public Schools’ policy only allowed testing for unvaccinated employees who were granted medical or religious exemptions.

About 96% of the district’s 3,400 staff members received the vaccine by the October deadline, district officials said. Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Chief Human Resources Officer Charles Burton, who are named in the suit along with the St. Louis School Board, declined to comment Wednesday.

The American Federation of Teachers Local 420, which represents SLPS teachers, supports the district’s vaccine policy. A spokesman for the union also declined to comment Wednesday about the lawsuit.

The district’s vaccine mandate will likely be outlawed by the start of the school year. The Missouri Legislature passed a bill this spring banning vaccine mandates for public employees in the state. The law goes into effect in August if Gov. Mike Parson signs it.

A federal appeals court in April upheld President Joe Biden’s requirement that all federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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