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Union County parents say school board is failing students

Some parents feel the board members are not prioritizing student safety. Health Secretary Cohen is threatening legal action.

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — The fallout continues after the Union County Board of Education voted to relieve school staff from contact tracing duties and change quarantine protocols

That vote led to Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, to send a letter to the school board chair, Melissa Merrell, asking they rescind the motion passed Monday and adopt the protocols in the state's strong schools toolkit by Friday at 5 p.m. If they don't, the state has threatened legal action. 

Union County Public Schools is still one of the very few districts in the state not to mandate masks in the classroom. 

Merrell told WCNC Charlotte in an email that there are no plans to meet before Friday’s deadline. If the school board does not act, the state has every right to take them to court.

“Certainly, that is one function of the courts, is to help the health secretary enforce public health measures,” Gary Mauney, a Charlotte-area civil litigator, said.

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In Mauney's opinion, a court would likely side with the state and enforce any reasonable health measures they want in place.

“There are two U.S. Supreme Court cases that date back to 1905 that are very clear that the state has the power to mandate reasonably related health regulations in the midst of a public outbreak,” Mauney said.

Mauney said legal action wouldn't be cheap and taxpayers would foot the bill.

In the letter, Cohen said the school board's actions posed an imminent health threat. She wrote shorter quarantines are possible in some situations and not needed only when someone is fully vaccinated or when both the person infected and the person exposed are wearing masks.

In a statement, the school board said the county health director would not consider their request for a 7- or 10-day quarantine. But in a letter sent before their vote, Health Director Dennis Joyner said he would not object to a shorter quarantine, as long as it followed the state's guidelines.

Some parents feel like their kids are stuck in the middle.

“The courts are a very slow way to effect change," Brad Cunningham said. "Right now, my three kids don't have the luxury of time to wait on the courts to figure this out because every day they're in school they're at a heightened risk of COVID exposure."

Some parents are concerned the topic has become so controversial that school board members aren’t prioritizing their children’s well-being.

“It’s really sad," Vicki James said. "It seems like all of this has turned into a political thing when really it’s just a health issue."

Her son Zachary is a medically fragile high school freshman but with fewer safety measures in place, they've had to keep him home.

“What parent could send a child into a setting where the possibility of the child contracting something that could possibly lead to a lifelong illness and possible death, how could you send your child knowingly into that situation?" James questioned.

The board didn’t even discuss masks when they met on Monday.

Cohen said Union County had the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for children under 18 for the week ending Sept. 11. The rate of cases in children in Union County is substantially higher than in counties of similar size and population.

“You’re just sending your kids to school hoping they can stay there and stay safely,” Cunningham said.

Some parents are hoping it doesn't reach the point of litigation and that school board members will prioritize student safety.

“The best interest is to have our kids in school which we all agree, to have our teachers to have our kids to have the faculty and staff safe and be able to come back the next day,” James said.

The health director, board chair, and superintendent all would not go on camera with WCNC Charlotte on Thursday.

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