Union County schools to comply with COVID protocols amid NC lawsuit threat

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Union County’s school board voted Monday to modify the district’s quarantine protocols to comply with state law and let the county health department lead contact tracing efforts.

The Union County Board of Education held a special meeting at 7 a.m. as it faced legal action from the state’s health department over the district’s COVID-19 protocols inside schools.

In an 8 to 1 vote on Monday, the School Board decided it will allow students and staff to quarantine if they were in close contact with someone who tested positive.

After coming out of closed session just after 8:30 a.m., the School Board voted to “continue following its legal obligations of reporting positive cases to the local health department and providing relevant information to the local health department.”

The School Board also agreed to require students who are symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19 to stay home, and the district will recognize quarantines in accordance with state law, of students and staff who are considered close contacts with a COVID-19 positive case.

The school district will still not implement a mask mandate.

The move comes after the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services threatened to sue the district for overhauling contact tracing procedures and allowing most of its 7,000 quarantined students back into the classroom so long as they are not symptomatic or infected with COVID-19.

Parents Channel 9 spoke with said they were left with a lot of questions following the 90-minute closed session where the School Board voted to reinstate some of its COVID-19 protocols, including reporting positive COVID cases to the health department, placing students and staff in quarantine who test positive or who are showing symptoms, and also quarantining close contacts of someone who has COVID-19 -- an about face from last Monday’s vote.

Because it is one of a handful of districts not compelling students or staff to wear masks and does not have an online learning option, some Union County parents said the quarantines have amounted to 14 days of near total learning loss.

Roughly one-sixth of the district’s 39,000 enrolled pupils were stuck at home the week before the district substantially changed its COVID protocols. Less than 1,700 kids were quarantined last week after the changes, a 77% weekly drop.

Rev. Jimmy Bention was the only board member to vote no on Monday morning.

“Because this motion would cause healthy kids to be sent home, I vote nay,” he said.

Here are few brief highlights about the changes:

  • While UCPS staff and district-employed nurses have stopped the primary responsibilities for contact tracing, Union County Public Health will manage contact tracing for students and staff.
  • Based on Monday’s vote, the Union County Board of Education will recognize quarantines, in accordance with state law, of students and staff who are considered close contacts with a COVID-19 positive case. These students will not be allowed back in school until completion of their quarantine orders from Union County Public Health.
  • Prior to the Sept. 13 meeting, Union County Public Health had not issued any quarantine orders this school year.

>> Link to Union County Government Contact Tracing information.

Last week, the district decided against the state’s recommendations and essentially eliminated all COVID protocols like mask-wearing, contact tracing and quarantines.

Monday’s vote left parents confused about who’s responsible for contact tracing and who would need to quarantine.

“I feel like the board was very vague and very unclear,” said parent Sarah Gravesen. “They are making decisions for parents who have children who cannot be vaccinated, even if they wanted them to.”

“There was absolutely no clarity whatsoever given,” said fellow parent Jessica Bustamante. “I’d like them to be clear with their policies. How long are we quarantining? Who has to quarantine? And let’s be smart about it.”

Last Monday, UCPS stopped COVID-19 contact tracing and quarantines for non-positive faculty, students and staff. Students can attend school even if they were in close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Only people who tested positive must stay home and masks are also not required.

Timeline of events:

  • Monday, Sept. 13: Union County Public Schools Education Board votes to end contact tracing, quarantines for non-positive students
  • Wednesday, Sept. 15: NCDHHS sends letter threatening legal action if board does not rescind vote
  • Friday, Sept. 17: UCPS Education Board misses state’s 5 p.m. deadline
  • Monday, Sept. 20: UCPS Education Board held emergency meeting

Late last week, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services sent Union County Public Schools a letter asking the district to comply by 5 p.m. Friday. That deadline came and went, but reportedly, attorneys with the school board had been talking with its state counterparts.

>> Click here to read the entire letter.

North Carolina health officials said Friday that they had “productive conversations” with UCPS regarding their quarantine policies. They said their attorneys have been meeting with the district’s attorneys and hope no legal action has to be taken.

Mandy Cohen, the state’s top public health official, threatened legal action if the board did not update its policies. It was unclear following Monday’s meeting if the changes made by the School Board would satisfy the state.

Channel 9 has reached out to the NCDHHS for comment but has not yet heard back.

PAST COVERAGE:

At noon on Monday, the Union County Board of Education released the following statement:

This morning, the Union County Board of Education met, and took the following action:

According to state law, our local health department has taken over primary responsibility of contact tracing and has reduced the length of the quarantine period of asymptomatic individuals, I move that:

  • UCPS will continue to follow its legal obligations of reporting positive cases to the local health department and providing relevant information to the local health department;
  • UCPS will require students and staff who are symptomatic or who have tested positive for COVID-19 to stay home in accordance with state law;
  • UCPS will recognize quarantines, in accordance with state law, of students and staff who are considered close contacts with a COVID-19 positive case.

Based on this motion, UCPS will continue adhering to the quarantine measures directed by the State and local health departments. However, if a student or staff member has been identified as a close contact to a positive case, they will not need to quarantine for 14 days if they remain asymptomatic, rather their quarantine period will be shortened to 10 days and could be shortened to 7 days if the individual has received a negative antigen or PCR/molecular test on a test taken no earlier than day 5 of quarantine. During the quarantine period, students will not be allowed to come to school. When a student or staff member returns to school after 10 or 7 days, they will need to wear a face covering through the 14th day. UCPS will remain mask optional for all students and staff, except for those individuals returning for quarantine as stated above.

‘This is something that can be completely avoidable’

Some parents blame the district for refusing to mandate masks to curb virus spread, but they also fault the governor and other state leaders for not doing more to intervene. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law last month that shifts more power to local school boards and allows them revisit their masking policies every month. Cooper’s administration no longer requires a statewide mask mandate or remote learning option.

In the meantime, parents continue to make difficult choices.

Sushanth Kancharla, a father of two elementary school students in the district, kept his kids in the classroom, but fears for their safety because of the lack of a mask mandate.

“When I send them to school, I want them to come back safely and also not get quarantined and not miss school,” Kancharla said. “Every day that they go to school, it’s kind of rolling the dice on it and seeing what happens. It’s quite unfortunate. This is something that can be completely avoidable.”

Parents like Kim Allen, who has two daughters in Union County schools, have strong feelings.

“Oh, it was a big mistake, because it not only jeopardizes my family, it jeopardizes other families as well,” she told Channel 9.

State health officials sent the board a letter threatening legal action if it didn’t reverse its decision. Others, like Tia Benton, said the state shouldn’t decide what’s best for families.

“I don’t believe the state has the right to tell a parent what to do with their children,” she said.

Benton has five grandchildren enrolled in Union County schools and hopes the board does not reverse course.

“I don’t think they should quarantine them for 14 days,” she told Channel 9. “They had a rough school year last year, very rough.”

Martez Ensley said he wants to see a mandate to protect his 7-year-old daughter.

“That’s a mess, that’s a mess -- it’s getting worse, it’s spreading faster,” he said. “I would like to see it reversed. I honestly have been thinking about homeschooling my daughter because it’s just too much confusion.”

No matter which way the board votes, it’s obvious that not all parents will be happy.

“The decisions that are being made now are very important decisions and that’s going to really affect who I vote for,” Allen said.

‘Our state is trying to bully our school board’

Later Monday evening, School Board Chair Melissa Merrell faced several questions from Union County commissioners.

During the County Commission meeting, leaders heard from several parents who were upset about the School Board’s decision to bring back its quarantine policy after pressure from the state.

“Our state is trying to bully our school board into submitting to their unlawful rules,” one parent said. “It is not the job of the schools to do the health department’s job.”

Commissioners also heard from a mother of a Union County school student. She’s also a doctor and was representing 50 other doctors who are also Union County parents.

“While Union County physicians have been working hard caring for patients, and most residents of Union County have been acting responsibly, a small but very vocal portion of our community has been working to ensure they have what they call freedom and liberty at the expense of the health and safety of their neighbors,” she said.

Merrell then spoke to county commissioners about the School Board’s vote earlier that morning.

“Their quarantine period will be shortened to 10 days, or 7 days if the individual has received a negative antigen or PCR molecular test on the test taken no earlier than day 5 of the quarantine,” she explained.

There was a tense moment when Merrell turned around and verbally confronted the mother and doctor who spoke earlier about how the district gets its COVID results. The Vice Chair of the commission later admonished Merrell, who said that students were not catching COVID in schools, but rather that they are catching it in quarantine and while they’re in public.

“Our athletes, cheer, volleyball, football -- those definitely were some school-related activities where students were exchanging COVID-19, but not in the classroom,” she said.

There were also some testy moments among the commissioners, including a call for a vote of confidence in support of the School Board, which was voted down.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

(Watch the video below: Union County, state leaders having ‘productive conservations’ on quarantine protocols)