Union County schools stop COVID contact tracing, quarantining for non-positive students, staff

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — The Union County Public School Board voted on Monday morning to end COVID-19 contact tracing and quarantining for non-positive students and staff.

That means students can go to school even if they have come in close contact with someone who is COVID-positive. The only people who have to stay home are those who have tested positive or have symptoms.

The decision is effective immediately.

Union County schools do not require masks for students and staff.

Kelly Gardarelli’s sixth grader doesn’t feel sick, but she told Channel 9 her daughter won’t go back to school until there’s some kind of plan in place.

“Right now, it seems very irresponsible to be eliminating quarantines and contact tracing at the school level. It just doesn’t seem like a safe environment for the kids,” she said.

Cassie Testa’s daughter tested positive for COVID-19 a few days into the new school year, and her entire class was put into quarantine.

“I didn’t really think it would come down to this, that it would get to this point,” she told Channel 9. “Very, very shocked. I was sick, I was shaking. I started crying. Like, wow.”

Those in support of the board’s decision are upset that so many healthy students are negatively impacted by a few positive cases. Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said he would be meeting with principals and school-based staff on Monday to discuss the next steps, including a communication plan.

The Union County Board of Education met in emergency session on Monday morning, and COVID-19 protocols were the main focus. Later Monday, the school district issued the following statement:

“At the Sept. 13 Special Called meeting, the Union County Board of Education voted effective immediately, to halt all staff responsibilities regarding contact tracing and quarantining for students and staff, except as required by law. The statutory authority of managing contact tracing and quarantining is that of Union County Public Health.

“As required by law, school nurses, administrators and school staff will continue to address positive, presumptive or confirmed cases of COVID-19. All students and staff who do not have a positive COVID-19 test or symptoms, should return to school or work immediately.

“If students or employees have the following symptoms: fever or chills, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, headache, they should stay home, stay away from others and call their health care provider.

“Students and employees who have been isolated due to a positive case or COVID-19 symptoms, should not report to school or work until they have completed 10 days of isolation, symptoms have improved and fever free for 24 hours without fever-reducing medication.

“Face coverings are still optional for students and staff in Union County Public Schools.”

Union County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner sent a letter on Friday to the county school district with COVID-19 recommendations. The letter was sent as cases and the number of students and staff members quarantined continue to rise in Union County.

As of Friday, 479 students and employees had tested positive for the virus, and 7,285 were in quarantine.

Union County Schools is one of only three districts in North Carolina where masks are optional. In the letter from Joyner, he advised that masks be required. He also said a 14-day quarantine is the best option to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Without a universal mask requirement in Union County public schools, a 14-day quarantine period remains the best option to provide for the protection of student, teachers, staff and members of the community,” the letter said.

>> To view the full letter, click here.

Many parents have been in favor of choice because they believe COVID-19 rarely harms children. Dr. Benny Joyner, who is the vice chair for safety at the Department of Pediatrics at the UNC Children’s hospital, said they are wrong.

“I would say they need to come into my ICU. I’ve got six, now five, critically ill pediatric COVID patients. Two of them have breathing tubes inserted to basically breathe for them. Two of them are infants,” he said.

“What I would say, the delta variant has really made the respiratory phase of the illness much more prominent than before,” Joyner said. “We have young men and women who are just struggling, gasping to breathe, unable to complete sentences. We have little babies on breathing machines who are heavily sedated from COVID -- it’s a challenge.”

The school board has heard from many parents on the issue but, so far, the freedom to choose side has won out.

“I think it’s important to everyone to be able to tell their kids what they can wear and what they can’t wear,” parent Eric McCorkle said. “It’s bad when we get to a place in society that a little bit is taken away, each time just a little bit here and a little bit there and before you know it, it’s a whole lot.”

“To keep everybody safe, it should be mandatory that we wear masks,” parent Samira Maske said.

Statement from North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly:

“The health and safety of our students and staff should be the number one priority of all decision-makers inside our public schools. The Union County Board of Education’s decision to allow students to attend school without masks, to end contact tracing, and to end most quarantine procedures is startling and deeply concerning. It’s reckless and flies in the face of Union County’s own health department, the state, and federal public health officials. NCAE is looking into safety options for staff and students, especially those who are not eligible for a vaccine during this ongoing pandemic.”

Statement from the NC Department of Health and Human Services:

“The Union County Board of Education’s decisions to not require masks and to allow students who have been exposed to COVID-19 to attend school is troubling and could have serious health consequences for all residents - particularly as the county had the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for children under 18 for the week ending September 11th and more than 16 percent of all tests in the county were positive for the 14-day period ending September 11th. Following proven and long-established public health practices that prevent the spread of disease will keep students in the classroom and ultimately end the pandemic. We are considering what additional actions may be needed to protect student, staff and community health in Union County.”

Majority of parents at Union County joint meeting back school board’s decision

The Union County Human Services Board met Monday night in a packed house after Union County Commissioners called a special meeting to discuss COVID-19.

“I also shared my view that a 14-day quarantine period was the safest option to slow the spread of COVID-19, particularly that was influenced by the absence of a masking policy,” Joyner said.

Joyner and State Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson told the health board that Union County’s viral spread is too high and mask mandates and quarantines are needed for now until metrics improve.

“We have to remember we are all connected in our community,” Tilson said.

(Watch reporter Joe Bruno’s full story below)

In their joint meeting with the Union County Human Services Board, several commissioners backed the School Board’s decision. The vast majority, if not all members of the crowd, supported it, too.

“You do not have the right to dictate my health or my children’s health. I am ashamed of you,” resident Lynn Hooiser said.

“When did we become so afraid of dying that we refused to let people live?” resident Brian Helmes asked.

The Human Services Board had no role in the school board’s vote Monday morning and is made up of volunteers from the medical community. While they have little power, one member attempted to explain the situation Union County is in and why masks and quarantines are beneficial.

“With the increase we are seeing, doing nothing is not a strategy,” board member John Laurenzana said. “There has to be some sort of common ground between the school system and the public health system because clearly we are seeing the number of positive cases go up.”

No vote was taken Monday night.

(Watch Below: Masks to remain optional in Union County schools despite thousands quarantined)