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Union County schools vote to immediately end contact tracing and quarantine for non-positive students and staff

This meeting comes days after the school district was called out by Gov. Cooper as one of the five remaining school districts not requiring masks.

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — The Union County Board of Education voted 8-1 Monday morning to immediately end staff responsibility for contact tracing and quarantine operations for any asymptomatic or non-positive students and staff.

According to the school district, students and staff that are not on the COVID-19 positive list and that don’t have symptoms can come back to school effective immediately. 

They have instructed school personnel to discontinue contact tracing efforts.

The singular opposing vote came from Rev. John J. Kirkpatrick, IV.

"We will continue activities as required by law. our staff will continue to handle positive and presumptive positive cases," board member Gary Sides said in the meeting.

Board of Education members said they do not have the legal authority to issue quarantines. Thousands of students have already been sent home after exposure this school year.

According to the state's stronger schools toolkit, if a student is exposed to someone who tests positive but both are masking at the time, no quarantine is necessary.

Since the district is one of the few remaining in North Carolina without a mask mandate, students and staff believed to have been in contact with COVID-19 patients had been quarantining at home. As of Sept. 10, there were 1,022 positive COVID-19 cases across the district. 

This decision Monday would allow those individuals, who are not showing symptoms and have not tested positive, to return immediately without fulfilling the rest of the state-recommended quarantine period.

In an interview with WCNC Charlotte Friday, Union County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner said he has advised the school board to follow the state's recommendations.

RELATED: In letter to Board of Education, Union County health director encourages state recommendations on masks, vaccines

“One of the things that's a key element to the toolkit is requiring masking while indoors for schools," Joyner said. "I clearly support that."

In the absence of masks, Joyner has encouraged the full commitment to a 14-day quarantine period. With masks, the state says a quarantine period is not necessary.

Monday afternoon, Union County Public Health provided the following statement to WCNC Charlotte regarding the board of education's decision: 

"In response to your question, By NC statute, the primary responsibility for contact tracing belongs to Public Health. However, by law, certain parties are required to provide Public Health with necessary and relevant information to assist Public Health in communicable disease control. Additionally, contact tracing direction outlined the Strong Schools toolkit, developed by NCDHHS and adopted for use in all NC public schools by NCDPI, notes the contact tracing responsibility is a shared responsibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic."

A Union County Public School parent who wanted to remain anonymous said it feels like the board abandoned their community.

"Do the right thing and protect our children and our teachers and our staff," they said. "I am so afraid that it is going to take the death of a young child in union county for them to say oh maybe we should do something."

A student promptly started an online petition saying she's scared to go to school without certain policies in place.

Jordan Benn decided to keep his kindergartener out of public school, and enrolled him in private school as a result.

"Follow the science. and honestly follow the crowd. it seems like most of the other counties in North Carolina are doing it," Benn said.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, called the board of education's decision "reckless" and says it doesn't put safety first.

“The health and safety of our students and staff should be the number one priority of all decision-makers inside our public schools," Kelly said in a statement. "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."

Last week, Union County was called out by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper as one of the remaining school districts not requiring masks.

In a statement to WCNC Charlotte, NCDHHS said:

"We all have the same goals to keep our students in the classroom. We understand the frustration that families and school leaders in Union County are expressing as the pandemic continues to take so much from so many.

In times of high rates of viral spread, multi-layered prevention strategies – vaccination, masking, and testing – lower the risk of spread in school settings and best protect students and staff. All but three North Carolina school districts are following the CDC and NCDHHS recommendation for universal masking in schools. In those districts, students and staff exposed to COVID-19 can avoid quarantine because masks, when worn appropriately, reduce the risk of exposure. Without masking, quarantine of unvaccinated people is essential to protect students and staff and prevent further viral spread in schools.

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."

After the Union County Schools Board of Education's decision Monday, the Union County Board of Commissioners announced an emergency meeting for Monday night. In their public notice, the commissioners did not directly mention the school board's decision but did say they will be reviewing the state's recommended guidelines.

With community transmission high and hospitals stressed, Joyner said masking in schools is an essential way to make the community safer.

“I think we're all in that position right now where we need to do a little more sacrificing,” he said.

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