Riverhead School District

Riverhead teacher fired earlier this year refused to comply with COVID-19 mandates, report says

A longtime music teacher at Riley Avenue School was fired from his tenured position earlier this year for failing to comply with COVID-19 mandates such as wearing a mask, failing to report to work and declining to attend a required scheduled medical exam, according to a copy of the disciplinary hearing report.

Keith Maguire, whose employment in the district started in 2000, argued he was “treated unfairly and subjected to a hostile work environment” and said he was “protecting children from an immoral mandate.”

The hearing officer, Thomas Lilly Jr., found each of the four charges filed by the district against Mr. Maguire as sustained, noting each charge constitutes “serious misconduct” and concluding the penalty in the case was termination.

The Riverhead Board of Education voted to approve the firing at an August meeting, as it was obligated to do under state education law. A tenured teacher has a right to retain their position and can only be terminated if there is “just cause,” according to state Education Law 3020-a. The board did not disclose the identity of the teacher at the time, citing a personnel matter.

A copy of the 22-page hearing report was obtained under the Freedom of Information Law from the New York State Department of Education. Portions of the report deemed an “unwarranted invasion of privacy” were redacted. 

The hearing officer noted that employers generally have the ability to establish workplace health and safety rules, particularly in schools that are responsible for the safety of minors. The question in this case was not about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 rule itself, but whether the teacher was “free to violate it without consequence,” the report states.

“He was not,” it says. 

A hearing was held March 21 and June 17. Mr. Maguire presented closing arguments at the hearing while the district submitted closing arguments in writing on July 8.

Mr. Maguire refused to wear a face mask while teaching on June 11, 2021 and June 14, 2021, according to the first charge of misconduct. The hearing officer notes that Mr. Maguire’s primary defense to the first charge was the decision issued on Jan. 24, 2022 by a Nassau County Supreme Court justice that found the state mandate was enacted unlawfully and in violation of the New York State Constitution. An appeals court judge, however, sided with the state the next day. The hearing officer found Mr. Maguire’s reliance on that court decision as “misplaced” since it was promptly stayed pending appeal.

The second charge of misconduct and/or neglect of duty says that Mr. Maguire failed to report on Oct. 18, 2021 for a medical examination to determine his physical capacity to perform his employment. The school board had directed the exam on Sept. 28, 2021. The third charge of misconduct and/or neglect of duty says Mr. Maguire failed to report to work “on or about” Oct. 13, 2021 through Nov. 1, 2021. A fourth charge said he refused to comply with mandates for COVID-19 testing and to wear a face mask in buildings. A large section of the fourth charge was redacted.

Mr. Maguire indicated in September 2021 that he would not report to work if he was required to wear a mask or be subject to COVID-19 testing. The district noted that Mr. Maguire had worn a mask between September 2020 and early June 2021 and did not express any inability to do so. Mr. Maguire disputed that notion and cited emails he sent an administrator in 2020 seeking permission to wear a face shield instead of a mask, as well as an email seeking to teach virtually.

In June 2021, the school principal was informed that Mr. Maguire was not wearing his mask on a regular basis. He was told to report to the interim superintendent, Christine Tona, who notified him that he had to wear a mask or go home. He chose to go home and was subsequently reassigned to the district office, the report says.

The district’s reopening plan in September 2021 required staff to wear masks while indoors and unvaccinated staff were required to be tested for COVID-19 weekly. Mr. Maguire informed the district he would be unable to work for six weeks from Sept. 7, 2021. During the time, Mr. Maguire, who’s also a musician, “performed music at local establishments,” the report says.

The district sent a letter of “warning and caution” in June 2021 to Mr. Maguire on the requirement to wear a mask in school buildings.

“His behavior shows a continuous refusal to follow the directives of the State, the District and his supervisors,” according to the district’s account in the report. “His attitude does not meet the expectations for a teacher. His insubordination resulted in his failure to report to work.”

In Mr. Maguire’s defense in the report, he claims that wearing a mask had negative physical effects on him and students and the stress impacted his blood pressure. He said at least 10 other co-workers were opposed to the mask mandate but were afraid of losing their jobs.

He argued he was subjected to a hostile work environment because he was not a union member. The hearing officer found “no credible record evidence to support that argument.”

Greg Wallace, president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, said in August: “I am not at liberty to comment on the employment status of non-RCFA members.” Superintendent Augustine Tornatore, who’s listed as the complainant for the disciplinary hearing, declined to comment Friday through a district spokesperson, citing the district’s policy on personnel matters.

Mr. Maguire claimed he did not attend the scheduled examination because he was “suspicious of the District’s motives.” The hearing officer determined that was “not a valid ground for refusing to attend.”

Mr. Maguire’s salary in 2021 was listed at $114,201, according to SeeThroughNY. Mr. Maguire could not be reached for comment Friday.

The statewide mask mandate for schools ended in late February 2022 following a shift in guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At a virtual meeting shortly afterward, the Riverhead BOE revised its reopening policy to remove its mandatory mask requirement. Students and staff have not been required to wear masks since that time.

Mr. Maguire describes himself as a singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist on his music website, and says he performs an “eclectic mix of standards, motown and top 40 hits from every decade.”