Local school mandates masks after 14 COVID cases, more than 150 quarantined

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Union Academy Charter School is mandating masks for all students and staff for the next month after reporting 14 positive COVID-19 cases, the school confirmed in a letter to parents.

The school was one of the first in the area to return for the new year and had originally made masks optional.

As of Monday, more than 150 students and staff were also in quarantine, according to the letter.

School leaders said in the letter that if the mask mandate policy had been in place last week, the number of people required to quarantine would have only been those who tested positive instead of more than 150 people.

Channel 9 learned that nearly half the students at the school were not wearing masks during the first week of school. Parents had signed religious and medical exemptions to the mandate but after the outbreak, school leaders decided to tighten up the policy.

“As we realized we had a significant number of cases leading to quarantine, I brought this before the board to say I think this is something we need to revisit,” said head of the school, John Marshall. “We only allow medical exemptions that are medical -- and they have to be documented and signed by a doctor or medical professional.”

Some parents told Channel 9 that the change caught them off guard and they weren’t given a chance to voice their opinions on the matter.

“Communication was sent to parents on Sunday at 4:30 about the change to the rules and that did not allow a lot of time, so there are a lot of parents scrambling to get a doctor’s appointment,” said parent Deb Helms.

Everyone at the school will have to wear masks starting Monday and will continue to do so until the next board meeting on Sept. 2.

The school said its decision was based on guidance from Gov. Roy Cooper, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and Union County public health officials.

The Union County School Board is meeting Tuesday night, and although their policy doesn’t apply to Union Academy, the issue of masks could come up. Currently, Union County Schools has a mask-optional policy and no changes to that policy are expected.

Union Academy issued the following statement on Monday:

As a NC public school, Union Academy (UA) Charter School follows the guidance in the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit provided by NCDHHS.

Following its long-established modified year-round calendar, UA began school on July 26, 2021. The school followed the guidance of the toolkit, which was updated July 21, 2021 based on Governor Cooper’s recommendations. The toolkit was modified July 29, 2021, when the CDC, the Governor, and state health officials amended their recommendations.

As of today, UA has 14 active Covid-19 cases and more than 150 students and staff quarantined due to possible exposure. In making these decisions, the school followed the toolkit’s required quarantine guidelines.

In response to this level of outbreak and quarantine, the Board made the decision at a regular meeting on July 31 to implement a universal mask mandate K-12, allowing only for documented exemptions for medical reasons. The Board made this decision to ensure students would be able to remain in school. Previous to this meeting, the school had followed a more accommodating exemption policy, in which exemptions were approved for any reason without exception.

The StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit allows an exception to required quarantine: “Students who are not fully vaccinated after a close contact in a classroom or other school setting if masks were being worn appropriately and consistently by both the person with COVID-19 and the potentially exposed person do NOT need to quarantine” (Updated July 29, 2021).

In sum, in an effort to keep students in the classroom, UA is now requiring all students, staff, volunteers, and visitors to wear face coverings indoors beginning August 2, 2021. The issue will be revisited on September 2, 2021 when the UA Board reconvenes or when additional guidance regarding mask wearing and quarantine procedures for schools is provided by the Governor or the NCDHHS.

The school returned to universal masking without incident this morning. UA looks forward to a time in the near future when masks and quarantines will be unnecessary.

(WATCH BELOW: No new NC mask mandate; Cooper calls on businesses to verify vaccination status of workers)