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Union County Votes Tuesday Whether To Require Masks As COVID-19 Cases And Quarantines Rise

A class session at Union County's Parkwood Middle School, where masks inside are optional. Last week eight students at the school tested positive and just over 200 were quarantined.
Union County Public Schools Facebook
A class session at Union County's Parkwood Middle School, where masks inside are optional. Last week eight students at the school tested positive and just over 200 were quarantined.

The Union County school board will vote Tuesday on whether to reverse its mask-optional policy in the face of rising COVID-19 cases and quarantines. It’s the largest district in North Carolina that still lets people go unmasked inside schools.

Union County was one of the first to announce it would let students and staff decide whether to wear masks after the state's mandate expired this summer. Dozens of districts followed suit, including most surrounding Mecklenburg County.

But with the delta variant driving up COVID-19 infections, the North Carolina School Boards Association reports that 110 of 115 districts have made masks mandatory. Union County, which has about 40,000 students, is one of the last holdouts.

Union County reported 176 COVID cases among staff and students the first week of school and 367 last week, with just over 5,200 students quarantined because of exposure. That's about one out of eight students.

"Our quarantine, our positivity rate, everything’s out of control," said Elena Brown, vice president of the Union County Association of Educators.

She said teachers, parents and doctors will call for a mask mandate Tuesday night.

"There will be a big rally beforehand," she said. "There are a lot of community members and parents involved now and upset."

But board Chair Melissa Merrell said Monday night the number of COVID-19 cases are rising, but the infection rate is comparable to nearby districts that require masks.

Merrell said the problem is with the state's quarantine rules and the way the Union County Health Department is enforcing them, requiring 14-day quarantines for all exposed students.

The state rules require unmasked, unvaccinated students to be sent home after exposure. If everyone consistently wears masks, as state and national health officials urge, students don't have to quarantine unless they show symptoms.

The state rules give some leeway for shorter quarantines if exposed students get a negative COVID-19 test, but Merrell said the county health department is insisting on two weeks at home.

"That is a huge concern for me to have this many healthy, asymptomatic students that have, their parents have taken them to get tested and they’re negative, but our local health department will not let them come back until after 14 days," Merrell said.

Health director Richard Joyner could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

State law requires all districts to vote monthly on their mask policies. While mandating masks would reduce the need for quarantines, Merrell said she doesn't think that's practical in Union County, where many parents and school board members believe the decision should be left to families.

"Parents have said that they will withdraw their students and go to the local charter school, private school or home school if we do a mask mandate," she said.

The meeting starts at 7 p.m. The agenda calls for up to an hour of public comments before the board discusses COVID-19 metrics, quarantine rules and the masking policy.

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Updated: September 7, 2021 at 11:56 AM EDT
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.