St. Charles School District teacher no longer being paid after challenging vaccine, testing requirements

A St. Charles School District 303 elementary school teacher who has been challenging in court the COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements was told by the district Sept. 27 that she no longer can teach at her school.

A Kane County judge last week denied a request from Ferson Creek Elementary School second grade teacher Nicole Cournaya for a temporary restraining order to prevent District 303 from enforcing an order from Gov. JB Pritzker banning school workers from buildings if they are unvaccinated against COVID-19 and refuse to be tested weekly.

District 303 teacher Jeffrey Otterby, who is a Thompson Middle School teacher, along with District 303 administrative assistant Christine White and District 304 bus driver instructor Terry Todd joined Cournaya in asking for the temporary injunction.

“After 22 years of service in public education and risking my health last year to provide in-person learning for students, I was excluded from work today,” Cournaya wrote on her Facebook page. “I am not being paid starting today because I am not consenting to the tyranny in Illinois. I am being discriminated against for my religious and medical beliefs. I stand for the Constitution. Agree with me or not, it’s my choice.”

According to St. Charles Education Association President Joe Blomquist, any employee that has been excluded from working in St. Charles schools as a result of the governor’s mandate would be able to return to their position as soon as they comply with the executive order. The St. Charles Education Association has come out in support of the governor’s vaccine mandate for teachers and staff to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A COVID-19 vaccine for children younger than 12 is not yet available.

“The health and safety of our students and staff has always been our primary motivation in any conversations that we’ve had,” Blomquist said. “From the union perspective, the fact that the governor has given multiple pathways to provide any extra layer of health and safety in our schools, we support the approach that the governor has taken.”

Last month, Blomquist said he didn’t know if the mandate would motivate more staff to get vaccinated.

“I’m not convinced that it will be the motivation,” Blomquist said. “I never want to force somebody to do something that they don’t want to do. In everything, the best way to get to a collective decision is through regular conversation. I believe we’re seeing more and more staff members come to the decision on their own.”

No St. Charles School District employee has been terminated because of the executive order, Carol Smith, the district’s director of communications and community relations, said in an email. During a hearing Sept. 24, Judge Robert Villa said the four plaintiffs failed to meet several of the legal requirements to get a temporary restraining order.

Villa said they failed to show they would suffer irreparable harm if they took COVID-19 tests. They also failed to show there was no adequate remedy if they did suffer damages, the judge said.

In addition, he said they failed to prove the order violated a “protected right.”

Even if they are barred from the buildings and not paid, the teachers and the secretary can sue the districts for unlawful termination and try to get back pay, Villa said.

The bus driver instructor is an at-will employee the Geneva school district can fire anytime without cause, Villa said.

Villa said their complaints mostly are about refusing to be tested. That’s because the bus driver received a vaccine waiver on religious grounds. Two of the others also have received vaccine waivers on religious grounds, according to their lawyer, Patrick Walsh.

The four plaintiffs contend the school districts are interfering with their rights by enforcing a “modified quarantine.” They say the governor has no authority to impose modified quarantines and that only the state or county health departments have that authority. If a health department wants to quarantine a person, and a person objects to it, the health department then has to ask a judge to order the quarantine.

The governor’s executive order required school workers to obtain at least the first dose of a vaccine by Sept. 20. If they have not, they are supposed to be tested weekly and submit the results to their employers.

Eric Schelkopf

Eric Schelkopf

Eric Schelkopf covers St. Charles and writes entertainment stories for the Kane County Chronicle.