Mandy Cohen

Dr. Mandy Cohen

MONROE — The Union County Board of Education (BOE) has gone against the guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19; the Board continues to make mask-wearing optional, while more than 90% of public schools in the state are requiring masks on campus, according to N.C. Governor Roy Cooper.

During a special called meeting held on Monday, Sept. 13, the Board voted to stop contact tracing in the 53 Union County Public Schools, which includes more than 40,000 students. The BOE also shortened the quarantine periods for students and staff for some situations.

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

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), reacted to the Union County Board’s latest vote.

In a letter sent to Melissa Merrell, chairwoman of the Union County Board of Education, Cohen listed required policies for “quarantining, isolating, and excluding students, teachers and staff who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19.” The letter was copied to all Board members as well as Dennis Joyner, director of the Union County Public Health Department.

After Monday’s vote, Cohen stated the school district is no longer complying with these requirements. At the end of her letter, Cohen states that if the Board does not rescind the vote by Friday, Sept. 17, legal action may be required.

Cohen wrote about three policies she said the Board is no longer following after Monday’s action.

“First, if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the school principal must notify the local health director or designee of the positive case,” she stated. “Second, the school must provide medical or other records pertaining to the COVID-19 case upon request from the local health director or designee, to prevent further spread or to investigate a suspected outbreak. This information request can include, but is not limited to, class rosters, team rosters, locker assignments, teaching schedules, and parent contact information.

“Third, schools must ensure that students, teachers, and staff that are subject to isolation or quarantine measures, as described in the Toolkit, are excluded from school for the relevant periods of time. The Toolkit is clear on page 15, that “Isolation is required for all presumptive or confirmed cases of COVID-19” and that ‘Quarantine is required for an individual who has been a close contact ... of someone who is determined positive with COVID-19’ with certain exceptions described below (emphasis added). The exclusion criteria are set out in the chart on pages 17 and 18 of the Toolkit. Further, exclusion is defined on page 24 to mean that ‘an individual is not allowed to attend school in person in order to isolate because they are, or are presumed to be, COVID- positive, or to quarantine to ensure they do not expose others if they may become COVID-positive.’ ”

In her letter, Cohen provided the latest statistics on COVID-19 cases among children in Union County.

“Union County had the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for children under 18 for the week ending Sept. 11,” Cohen said. “The rate of cases in children in Union County is substantially higher than counties of similar size and population. Union County’s case rate for children under 18 last week (Sept. 5th — 11th) was 748 cases/100,000. This is 1.3 times higher than Cabarrus County (569/100,000), more than three times higher than Cumberland County (288/100,000), and more than three times higher than Durham County (245/100,000).”

The Board has sought counsel from Joyner; however, their recent vote goes against his advice on quarantining. On Sept. 10, Joyner issued a letter to the Board of Education explaining that quarantines are the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in a school district like Union County Public Schools that is currently face mask optional.

In a statement from the Board of Education that was posted on the UCPS website (ucps.k12.nc.us) on Sept. 15, the Board wrote:

UCPS is committed to mitigating and stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our schools. Data provided by the NC Department of Health and Human Services from the period of August 31 through September 13 shows that the rate of transmission in our schools was lower than many other districts in our state that have a mandated face covering requirement.

Moving forward, we want to make all students, parents, staff, and community members aware of the commitments by UCPS and its Board of Education to provide a sound basic education to our students:

UCPS will continue to report positive cases to the local health department as required by law.

UCPS will continue to isolate students and staff members if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19.

UCPS will communicate with parents when there is a positive case in their child’s school.

UCPS use the dashboard to communicate with parents when there is a positive case in their child’s school (here)

UCPS will support the efforts of the local health department in its effort to contact trace when a positive case in the school is reported. It is our understanding that the health department will contact trace when there are positive cases in schools and will contact parents as well. (here)

UCPS will continue to support all parents, students and staff members in their decision on whether to wear a face covering.

UCPS will continue to follow any mandated control measures, including quarantine orders, implemented by those state and local health officials that have the authority to do so.