Union County school board members voted Monday on changes to COVID-19 rules, including reducing quarantine times for students who haven’t tested positive and saying those students must wear a mask for a short period of time if they return in less than 14 days.
Union County Public Schools “will remain mask optional for all students and staff, except for those individuals returning from quarantine,” the board said in a statement Monday afternoon.
Monday’s change in Union County schools came in response to North Carolina’s top health official threatening legal action to address what she called a public health hazard. That arose after the board’s abrupt decision last week to immediately bring back thousands of students who’d been sent home to quarantine due to rising COVID-19 cases in the district.
Earlier Monday, The Charlotte Observer reported that board members offered little detail as to what was changing in the district’s policies. No debate or public discussion was had as the board held its 8-1 vote, holding a brief public session after spending nearly 90 minutes in a closed-door vote.
In a statement issued after the board meeting, officials said students and staff who are exposed to COVID-19 at school will no longer be required to quarantine for two weeks. Instead, a 10-day standard quarantine will apply and that period can be shortened to seven days, if the person tests negative for COVID-19.
The test must be taken no earlier than Day 5 of quarantine, according to a statement the board posted on the UCPS website midday Monday.
“During the quarantine period, students will not be allowed to come to school. When a student or staff member returns to school after 7 or 10 days, they will need to wear a face covering through the 14th day,” the statement reads.
This part of the board’s new policy for how schools will handle positive cases and require close contacts to stay at home appears to align with North Carolina’s guidelines for reopening schools during the pandemic.
In Monday’s vote, board members voted to “continue” following its legal obligations of reporting positive cases and providing relative information to the local health department. In addition to the shorter quarantine periods for students exposed but not positive, UCPS will require students who are symptomatic or who have tested positive for COVID-19 to stay home, which is not a change from the previous policy.
Board member Rev. Jimmy Bention was the lone dissenter to Monday’s vote to re-establish recommended quarantine procedures, saying: “This motion will cause healthy kids to be sent home.”
Previously, Union County students and staff exposed to the virus at school had to stay home 14 days. That’s in part due to state guidelines that call for schools without mask mandates to proactively exclude from class and school activities students who had close contact with someone who has tested positive. But seven and 10-day quarantines have also been an option, allowing a student to return to school if they have no symptoms or obtain a negative COVID-19 test.
DHHS warned Union Co. schools
Monday’s meeting — the open session took about three minutes and lacked any discussion besides the vote itself — appeared to be in response to a letter Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, sent to board members last week.
Cohen threatened legal action against Union County Public Schools if the board did not rescind its decision from Sept. 13 to effectively stop most quarantines of students, other than those who were showing symptoms or had a positive test. Two days later, however, Cohen’s office said they’d been in touch with the district’s attorney and “We are hopeful that we can avoid further legal action.”
Previously, the board voted to allow thousands of students in quarantine back into classroom, “effective immediately,” despite state COVID-19 guidelines saying people should quarantine at home for seven to 14 days after an exposure. That decision to stop close-contact quarantine for those who haven’t tested positive violates public health law in North Carolina, Cohen told the board.
“Quarantine,” she wrote, “is a longstanding public health control measure that is used to separate individuals who have been exposed to a communicable disease to prevent the spread of that disease.”
Cohen said if the Union County school board didn’t rescind it’s decision from Sept. 13, “legal action may be required to protect the public’s health.”
While some are calling the Union County school board decision Monday a reversal of the previous policy on contact tracing and quarantining, it’s unclear whether school board members see it that way. In a statement late Monday, N.C. DHHS spokeswoman wrote that state health officials, along with the county’s health department and the school district, are “continuing to work together on an operational plan that will clarify steps and roles in the process.”
“These actions are critical to protect student, staff and community health,” the statement said.
Just after the vote, the Observer reached out to county health officials and the district, as well as N.C. DHHS.
Liz Cooper, of the Union County Public Health communications, responded to the Observer’s questions with: “Union County Public Health continues to recommend the guidance for Union County Public Schools outlined in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit and the letter from Public Health Director Dennis Joyner on Sept. 10.”
Union County COVID dispute
Union County Public Schools is one of five districts in the state without a mask mandate. Because of that, a single case of COVID-19 in a school triggers the need for widespread quarantining. When the board made its decision to halt quarantine and contact tracing protocols earlier this month, more than 7,000 kids were quarantined with less than 1% of those having COVID-19.
Melissa Merrell, the school board chairperson in Union County, said schools have been strained trying to determine who a sick student may have been close to at school and notifying families of the need to stay home. She has also argued that it is the local health department’s responsibility, not the district’s, to do contract tracing and mandate quarantines.
Yet during Monday’s vote, board members signaled that school staff will re-engage, with the motion saying “UCPS will require students who are symptomatic or who have tested positive for Covid-19 to stay home. UCPS will recognize quarantines in accordance with state law of students and staff who are considered close contacts of a COVID-19 positive case.”
Last week’s board action surrounding the COVID-19 rules for schools said “The statutory authority of managing contact tracing and quarantining is that of Union County Public Health.”
This week’s motion said “Our local health department has taken over primary responsibility of contact tracing and has reduced the length of quarantine period of asymptomatic individuals.”
“The county health department will conduct contact tracing and issue any quarantine orders as per the law,” UCPS board member Gary Sides told the Observer on Monday.
Dennis Joyner, Union County’s public health director, told the Observer in a statement last week that school nursing staff “are uniquely positioned to assess and better understand potential close contact scenarios in the school setting.” In school districts statewide, and in North Carolina health officials’ guidance on reopening classrooms, the duty of identifying who may have been exposed and who needs to stay home is a shared responsibility between county health workers and school staff.
Based on last week’s vote by the school board, Joyner said in response: “With our limited capacity, the resulting efforts will be less efficient and consistent.”
An expert at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who specializes in state public health law told the Observer that school principals do have the legal responsibility to ensure disease control measures are being followed.
According to the district’s data dashboard that was updated Friday afternoon, the district reported 352 positive COVID19 cases among students and staff the week of Sept. 13-17. Last week, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 7,153 students were quarantined. This week, Union County reported 1,659 students were “isolated or excluded.”
Parents have been divided.
Angie McCray, a pharmacist who has three children and another one due in February, called on Gov. Roy Cooper to step in and force the district to comply with COVID-19 protections.
But on the other side, Moms for Liberty-Union County launched an aggressive email campaign last Thursday to lobby Cohen, Cooper and Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, the state health director. Members of Moms for Liberty emailed and called state officials, making it known that they would “stand strong against state overreach” and back the decision made this week by the school board.