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Union County school board votes to recognize quarantines for close contacts of COVID-19 cases

The board voted 8-1 to recognize quarantines in accordance with North Carolina law and will require symptomatic and positive students to stay home.

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — The Union County Public School Board of Education voted Monday to reimplement COVID-19 quarantine operations in accordance with North Carolina state law after being threatened with possible legal action from the state. 

The UCPS board voted 8-1 to reimplement some of the procedures they had done away with just a week ago.

The district will require students who are symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19 to stay home. 

UCPS will again make students and staff determined to have been in close contact with that individual also quarantine. While the statement recommends a 14 day quarantine period, based on Monday's vote:

  • An individual who has been in close contact but remains asymptomatic can return after 10 days.
  • If that same person receives a negative COVID-19 test result after five days, they can return to school seven days after contact.
  • Any individual returning to school within 14 days of contact will have to wear a mask through day 14.

The change is not retroactive, the district confirmed. Any student permitted to return early from quarantine last week will not need to resume their quarantine.

Rev. Jimmy Bention was the only vote against the motion Monday. He argued these procedures would cause healthy kids to be sent home.

"When kids are not in school, the learning loss is crippling as we can see by the numbers. But also the interaction with human beings with each other there is massive statistical data that speaks to those concerns," Bention told WCNC Charlotte in an interview after the vote.

In a statement, an NCDHHS spokesperson said:

"We appreciate that the Union County Board of Education met first thing this morning to address the concerns outlined in last week’s letter.  The Board has confirmed in writing that that Union County Public Schools will resume working with the Union County Health Department in contract tracing by producing records and information that can help identify close contacts and excluding students and staff infected with COVID-19 or exposed to COVID-19 who must isolate or quarantine from school. NCDHHS, UCPS and the LHD 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."

In a meeting later Monday, the Union County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to express their lack of confidence in the school board. David Williams made the motion, seconded by Stony Rushing. Williams and Rushing voted in favor of the vote of confidence. Richard Helms, Dennis Rape, and Jerry Simpson voted against the motion.

"What I was not in favor of was throwing caution to the wind and doing no contact tracing, no quarantine, no nothing," Helms said. "It's kind of like playing Russian roulette with our children."

The vote of confidence is purely symbolic and has no legal barring.

A UCPS middle school teacher agrees the classroom is the best place for kids to be but isn't sure it's been the safest.

"Do the kids need to be in school? One hundred percent," Ashley Rossman said. "But it's not about one student. It's about everybody and so we have to keep everybody safe and I know that right now that's a very controversial hot topic."

Masks will remain optional for all students and staff districtwide. The board did not vote or discuss a mask mandate. UCPS remains one of a few districts in North Carolina to not require masks for students and staff.

Last year, students and teachers wore them.

"Last year all year I might've had one student go in quarantine the whole school year," Rossman said. "I didn't see a kid in my class test positive and this year, I cannot say either one of those facts is true."

Plus, the inconvenience of quarantines could be completely eliminated. According to the state's toolkit, it's not needed if both the positive student and exposed student are wearing masks.

"My husbands on FMLA for two weeks while she's in quarantine to help me continue to work and he can take care of the kids," Samantha Thomas, a parent, said.

Bention said they will talk about masks at the next board meeting. Every school board is required to by state law once a month.

The vote happened during a three-minute public, virtual meeting following a private meeting Monday morning. The meeting came after a week of back-and-forth with state health officials who said the district needed to adopt state-recommended COVID-19 protocols or face possible legal action. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said Friday its attorneys had "productive conversations" with Union County school leaders. The following statement was issued just hours before the state-issued deadline of 5 p.m. on Sept. 17. 

The board did not mention Dr. Mandy Cohen or her letter during the public portion of the meeting.

"We all share the same goal of keeping our students, teachers and staff in the classroom where children learn best. Excluding students from school should be a last resort," the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement. "The guidance and recommendations in our StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit are designed to safely keep students in classrooms. Our attorneys have had productive conversations with attorneys for the Union County Board of Education, and I hope we can avoid further legal action. We have received communication from the Chairperson of the Union County Board of Education that the Board will meet on Monday to resolve the matter."

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On Sept. 13, the board voted 8-1 to relieve school staff members from contact tracing duties and eliminate quarantine operations for any asymptomatic or non-positive students and staff. The singular opposing vote during this meeting came from Rev. John J. Kirkpatrick, IV

Lincoln County's school board voted that same week to make masks optional, joining Union County as the only district in the Charlotte metro to not mandate face coverings for students and staff. 

Cohen sent a letter to the Union County school board, asking officials to rescind the Sept. 13 motion and to follow the guidance offered by the state's COVID-19 toolkit for public schools. The state then set the Sept. 17 deadline.

In a statement issued before Dr. Cohen sent the letter, board members said they made the policy changes because 14 days quarantines have been a hardship for families.

In her letter, Cohen cited CDC data that showed the seven-day COVID-19 case average in Union County was more than five times above the CDC threshold for "high transmission." 

At the time, 16.2% of COVID-19 tests countywide were positive, well above the CDC's 5% goal. A week later, that number was nearly the same, with a percentage of 15.9% reported Monday.

The Union County Public Schools COVID-19 Dashboard reported 352 positive cases for the week of Sept. 13-17, including 319 students. There are over 1,800 students and staff members in quarantine.

Parents react

Those metrics extremely concerning to parents of at-risk children.

"In that environment, we should be taking all possible preventative measures to reduce the spread, and instead we've taken essentially none in the school which is where the children spend a huge part of their day," Dan Auslander said.

Auslander has three kids in Union County Public Schools. Every day he weighs the risks and rewards of sending them for in-person learning because his daughter has an autoimmune disorder putting her at extreme risk.

"If she became infected it could be catastrophic for her," he said.

He, and many other parents who have spoken to WCNC Charlotte, worry this has become a political issue.

"It's about taking the steps to protect each other and to keep everyone safe," Auslander said.

“This is going to backfire. Their name is going to be known for the wrong thing. For hurting our children,” K Lee Smith, another Union County parent, told WCNC Charlotte. “We really need them to look at this as a community problem and come together to fix this."

“To us, it seems downright dangerous,” Brian Corey said. He runs an after-school program for Union County school kids. About 40 elementary-age students participate each day and he believes it's been a success during the pandemic.

All of his kids mask up and while they have had some positive cases, for the most part, have kept kids safe in the program.

“Really we've had so little problem with getting the kids to wear the mask. They seem to understand inherently that this is important to protect themselves and each other,” Corey said.

Impact to other counties

Friday night Union County's Porter Ridge High School played Charlotte's Ardrey Kell during a varsity football game. The two teams are part of school districts with two very different COVID-19 protocols.

Fans at Porter Ridge were mostly excited about a return to football.

RELATED: Health experts concerned about ripple effects of Union, Lincoln County school decisions

“They’ve actually had to cancel two games so they have not even played the last two games because of COVID so we’re excited that we’re back," Porter Ridge fan Katherine Terry said.

Other fans were hopeful all schools will eventually follow the same COVID-19 protocols for the sake of student safety.

“Masks is one of the big things we practice," Ardrey Kell fan Patrick Clemons said. “I would at least want all schools in our area just to follow the appropriate protocols established by the state.”

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.  Contact Briana Harper at bharper@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. 

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