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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Union Academy's COVID-19 Cluster Offers Cautions As Students Return Across NC

 Union Academy Charter School in Monroe is seen in 2019.
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Union Academy Charter School in Monroe is seen in 2019.

Before the Union County school board voted to preserve its mask-optional policy Wednesday, an administrator cited Union Academy charter school as a cautionary tale.

The school in Monroe is currently North Carolina’s largest COVID-19 cluster, having seen cases spread after students returned unmasked. As schools across the region prepare to bring their students back next week, head of school John Marshall talked about what he's learned.

 John Marshall, Union Academy head of school.
Union Academy
John Marshall, Union Academy head of school.

Union Academy is a year-round K-12 charter school. When it opened July 26, the statewide school mask mandate was still in effect. And Marshall said masks were mandatory, except for students whose parents asked for exemptions.

Out of 2,000 students, "we had 900-some exemptions," he said. "And even when I would look around and see the students who were unmasked that first week it was even greater than that. I think we only probably had a third of our kids wearing masks."

Marshall says it’s not that he and his staff don’t understand how serious COVID-19 is.

"We lost a teacher last February," he said. "A middle school teacher who was, I think, very healthy. No underlying symptoms. Died in February of COVID. So we’ve had a death, and that was a very sad time for our school."

But the resistance to mask mandates is strong in Union County. The public schools there were among the first in North Carolina to announce they’d make masks optional when the state’s mandate expired July 30.

Crackdown On Masks Doesn't Stop Spread

By the end of the first week at Union Academy, 14 COVID cases had cropped up. Marshall announced there would be no more mask exemptions without a doctor’s note. The number of students with exemptions dropped from more than 900 to two.
"We are very much back to everybody wearing masks, and we’re spreading kids out at lunch and we have lots of tables set up outside under tents in the courtyard," Marshall said.

But that didn’t immediately stop students and staff from getting sick. There were even more positive tests the second and third weeks, with everyone masked. By the start of Week 4, 13 employees and 89 students had tested positive. Local health officials attributed that to school spread, not just cases coming in from outside.

For the students, Marshall says, the symptoms have been "very mild." But it’s been a different story for the teachers, including several who were vaccinated.

"It’s the sickest they’ve ever been, getting COVID after having gotten the vaccine," he said. "Fortunately none were hospitalized."

Hundreds Of Absences

The rising case load meant quarantines, especially before everyone was wearing masks. At the peak in early August, Marshall says, 650 students were absent at one time, almost one-third of the student body. He estimates 40% have missed at least one day in the first four weeks.

That includes quarantines, but also kids whose parents were protesting the end of mask exemptions or who feared COVID-19 exposure even if their kids weren’t required to stay home.

This week, absences have been down to about 250, he said. New cases have slowed, but there are still a handful each day.

"So, knock on wood, we have it as under control as we can," Marshall said Tuesday.

Marshall says Union Academy has been blasted on social media for eliminating mask exemptions, and a few families have withdrawn. But he said he’s willing to keep following the guidance of medical experts.

"We’ve got to persevere. Persevere and we’ll get through this, but we won’t get through it as quickly as we thought we would a month ago or six weeks ago," he said. "I hope this spike that we’re seeing will come down quickly."

When the Union County school board reviewed its plans Wednesday for bringing 40,000 students back Monday, Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw told board members Union Academy shows what can happen if COVID-19 starts to spread.

"By the time you get to the point where you think you can stop it, you’re already under water and you can’t recover from it," McCraw said.

The school board voted to keep masks optional anyway.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.