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Unit 5 employees sue district over vaccination, mask policies

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Six employees of Unit 5 have filed a lawsuit in Woodford County demanding the school district change its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and mask policies, claiming the rules violate a union agreement and an individual’s civil rights.

The staff members — Rachel Henderson, Ashley Defreese, Tracy Quattro, Laura Feely, Stacy Herren and Lisa Jones — seek a temporary injunction against Unit 5 to end the mandate that requires teachers to undergo weekly testing if they are not vaccinated. The policy is required for staff to “enter or work for” Unit 5.

Peoria lawyer Jason W. Jording filed the legal action. A hearing on the temporary injunction is scheduled for Thursday in circuit court in Eureka.

Jording was unavailable to comment Tuesday on why the lawsuit was filed in Woodford County, where less than 1% of the school district is located.

In a statement Tuesday night, Unit 5 attorney Curt Richardson said there are "many procedural and substantive deficiencies with the complaint, and the District will respond accordingly."

He added that Unit 5 is complying with Gov. JB Pritzker's executive order on vaccinations and testing and the Illinois State Board of Education's emergency rules that "require unvaccinated school employees to undergo weekly testing or be excluded from work. Pursuant to a Letter of Understanding with the Unit Five Education Association, bargaining unit members who failed to comply with the executive order and emergency rules are docked pay. The actions taken by the District are consistent with that Letter of Understanding."

Based on the policies, Quattro has been locked out of her job without pay, and the others named in the lawsuit are being forced “to test against their wishes and under duress to avoid adverse employment action being take against them by Unit 5,” contends the lawsuit.

According to the Unit 5 web site, Henderson, Defreese, and Feely are teachers at Glenn Elementary School. Jones is a paraprofessional also at Glenn. A Unit 5 spokesperson said Herren and Quattro are also teachers, Quattro at Glenn.

The educators take issue with a statewide emergency rule issued in September to address pushback from school districts that objected to mask and vaccination mandates. Vaccination and mask requirements are not considered quarantines under the rule, a position the plaintiffs find incorrect.

The state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act protects people from unwanted health care services, the Unit 5 staffers argue. The women “have conscientious objections against being forced to take vaccines which violate their sincerely held beliefs,” said the lawsuit.

The staff members allege that threats of progressive discipline for non-compliance with vaccination policies are outside the terms outlined in a “Letter of Understanding” between the school board and Unit 5 Education Association. Union members did not vote on that agreement, states the civil action.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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