UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Just a few days after the Union County Board of Education voted to end quarantines and contact tracing for a majority of students and staff, some in Union County Public Schools are speaking out and saying the decision puts families in the district at risk.
At the same time, the state is considering taking legal action against the district.
What You Need To Know
After the board's vote Monday to end quarantines, contact tracing, state threatens legal action
Some UCPS students say they are afraid, and feel unsafe, in the county's schools
Before the vote, UCPS had more than 7,300 students and staff in quarantine
The Board voted 8-1 on Monday, September 13, to end a majority of the district’s quarantines and put an end to UCPS staff-led contact tracing.
“Effective immediately, Union County Public Schools employees, staff, nurses halt all activity of contact tracing and quarantine. And, if a student that has currently been sent home on quarantine — they are allowed to come back to school as long as they were not on the positive list and have no symptoms,” Chairperson Melissa Merrell said after the vote.
In a letter to the board, dated Wednesday, September 15, 2021, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen threatened legal action if the board did not reverse its decision to end contact tracing and quarantine protocols.
“I respectfully request that you rescind the motion passed by the Union County School Board on September 13, 2021. I urge the Union County Public Schools to adopt all of the recommendations in the Toolkit and, at the very least, to reimpose the requirements to cooperate with local public health officials in identifying individuals exposed to COVID-19 as well as exclude students subject to isolation and quarantine measures described in the Toolkit no later 5:00 pm Friday, September 17, 2021. If Union County public schools do not take such steps by September 17th, legal action may be required to protect the public’s health,” Cohen wrote at the end of the letter.
In a lengthy statement posted to the UCPS website Wednesday, the board said UCPS was continuing to work with county public health officials, but was no longer handling contact tracing or quarantine decisions, saying it was outside the district’s legal role.
“School districts do not have legal authority to issue quarantine or isolation orders to students or staff members. While school systems may temporarily remove a child from school, school systems have no authority to require students or staff to stay at home. Only local and state health officials have this authority. Simply, UCPS believes that school is the safest place for children to be and that students who show no signs of COVID-19 symptoms should be in school learning, which is why school officials attempted to work with the local health department to shorten the quarantine period for asymptomatic students. Without the local health department using its lawful authority to issue quarantine orders, choose the appropriate length of quarantines, assist with contact tracing, or issue other control measures, the health department has placed UCPS in a position where we cannot continue to effectively contact trace or mandate quarantine,” the statement reads in part.
However, the board’s statement said the district would continue reporting positive cases, support county employees on contact tracing and notify parents of positive tests in the schools.
Also Wednesday, the Union County government published a breakdown of its notification process, saying county case investigators would begin contact tracing school cases.
Once the county is informed of a positive case, case investigators will call the affected family and request a list of close contacts. The county states once they have contact information for close contacts, they will call those contacts and determine quarantine guidance, however the process can take up to two days, according to the county’s outline.
“If the confirmed positive individuals cannot or will not provide the name and contact information, no further notifications are possible,” the county wrote.
“I want to highlight the concern that the action of the Union County Board of Education poses an imminent threat of serious adverse health consequences for students, teachers, staff, and the public more broadly,” Cohen wrote in her letter. “After Monday’s action, Union County Public Schools are no longer complying with these requirements.”
Late Thursday afternoon, a UCPS spokesperson said the board’s statement responding to Cohen’s letter was not available yet.
At the time of the board’s vote Monday, more than 7,300 students and staff were in quarantine with nearly 500 positive cases. In her letter, Cohen said the county’s children, those under age 18, had the third highest case count compared to the rest of the state for COVID-19 for the week ending September 11.
Leading up to Monday’s vote, some parents and some board members argued the 14-day quarantine was excessive, especially if students were not showing symptoms and were otherwise "healthy."
“I’d like to make a motion to stop sending healthy people home and that the quarantine protocols be for sick people only. And, that we immediately bring our healthy people back to school and their workplace,” said board member Jimmy Bention, at-large, at Monday’s meeting.
“Why are our healthy children made to sit out of school for 10 to 14 days following exposure? This is also arbitrary, with no scientific basis. If the new delta strain has an incubation of 48 to 72 hours, why are we asking kids to sit out of school for longer than three days?” said Britney Bouldin at last week’s meeting, representing the group Moms for Liberty.
In the schools, some students are expressing the opposite, saying Monday’s vote put them and their families at a higher risk.
A petition to bring back contact tracing and pass a mask mandate, started by a UCPS high schooler, already has more than 2,500 signatures.
“I am scared to go to school. I am scared to catch COVID-19, even though I’m fully vaccinated. I want a happy life where I can have school clubs and meet up with my friends and have school theater, but a school environment where kids can catch COVID puts all of that in jeopardy,” the petition’s author wrote in the post.
The Marvin Ridge High School sophomore was excited to return to in-person learning, but wanted classmates in masks. His petition has more than 3,900 signatures since it started in early August.
“I’m glad to be back in school, but I think it’s going to take some getting used to again,” Hamilton said this week.
Hamilton added he was disappointed to see the board’s vote this week.
“I don’t really approve of that decision, and I don’t really think that should be the step Union County is taking right now. Especially considering we have thousands of people quarantined,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton, who learned virtually last year to protect his mother’s high-risk pregnancy, said the first few weeks back at school have already presented challenges.
“It’s become a distraction because you have to worry about your safety, but you also have to worry about getting your education at the same time. That’s just not something you can balance, to be honest,” Hamilton explained.
He has two sisters at home, both of whom are too young to receive a vaccine. Hamilton, who is vaccinated and wears a mask at school, said within the first few weeks he was contact traced to a positive case.
“I had to wear my mask at home, and that kind of was scary for everybody 'cause I didn’t want to bring it home to my little sister,” Hamilton explained.
His experiences so far this school year, and the board’s decision Monday, left families like his on edge.
“Asymptomatic people can still spread it, and it just feels kinda scary and unsafe knowing that if I do indeed get exposed — I could have been exposed, you don’t even know! I don’t want to bring it to my little sisters,” Hamilton said.