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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 County School Board Votes 5-4 To Keep Masks Optional Even If It Means Massive Quarantines

Union County rally 0908 Jenn.jpeg
Jennifer Lang
Protesters supporting and opposing a mask mandate gathered outside the Union County school board meeting Tuesday.

Union County school board members, administrators and members of the public all agreed Tuesday: Having more than 5,000 students quarantined from exposure to COVID-19 is a crisis.

But five of the nine board members were unwilling to give up the district's mask-optional policy to reduce those numbers. It's now one of only three North Carolina districts allowing staff and students to opt out of face coverings as the delta variant surges through schools.

"I voted for one thing: The teachers, the employees and the parents that asked me to please allow them freedom of choice and not do a universal mandate," board Chair Melissa Merrell said after the vote.

As members gathered to discuss COVID-19 laws with their attorneys in closed session, dozens of protesters gathered outside the office in Monroe.

Monroe police and Union County sheriff's deputies used yellow plastic ribbon to create separate areas for supporters and opponents of a mask mandate.

Union County freedom ride 0908 Jenn.jpeg
Jennifer Lang
Trucks bearing flags circle the Union County Public Schools headquaters Tuesday, with a passenger calling out "Freedom!"

The group in favor of mandatory masks sang "Lean On Me" and the national anthem. Across the sidewalk, many in the group opposed to mandated masks wore red, white and blue clothing and waved American flags. A small convoy of trucks decked out with U.S. flags and some Trump flags circled the parking lot.

Once the meeting opened to the public, speakers from both groups made their case, as they've been doing for months.

Board member Jimmy Bention said there’s one thing everyone who has contacted him agrees on, "and that is, 'Please keep our children in school.' Whether they are for or against, all want this massive quarantine of healthy students to end."

Quarantines Empty Classrooms

As of Friday just over 5,400 staff and students were quarantined because of exposure to COVID-19. That comes to more than one in eight of the district's 40,000 students.

There was widespread agreement that that needs to change. The split was over what to do about it.

Some board members said the only logical choice was the unpopular one: Require masks. Under North Carolina’s new quarantine rules, that means unvaccinated students don’t have to quarantine after exposure unless they develop symptoms. That’s one reason 110 of 115 school districts had adopted mandates by the time the Union board met.

By the end of the night, two more had done the same, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reports.

Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said it was time for Union County to join them.

"Whether I agree or disagree, whether I accept or don’t accept, I think the one strategy left that we have that will ensure that more of our kids stay in school is a mask requirement," he said.

Health Director Doesn't Attend

One voice was conspicuously absent: That of Union County Health Director Dennis Joyner. Board Chair Melissa Merrell said she repeatedly asked him to speak at the meeting and he declined. Instead, she says, county officials agreed to a private meeting with the school board chair and vice chair that morning.

WFAE tried repeatedly to reach Joyner Tuesday and got no response.

Merrell says during the private meeting the health department answered one crucial question about the value of quarantining kids without symptoms: How many of those students have actually developed COVID-19?

"They said that out of 5,410, there had been 99 that did result in a COVID positive," she said.

Merrell says sending students home for what she called “a 14 day hall pass” exposes them to greater risk of catching and spreading the virus.

"We know about the football games, we know about the parties. We know about the trips to the mountains and the beach and the vacations and everything. We know where the positives are coming from," she said.

What Are Alternatives To Quarantine?

Bention proposed simply calling a halt to quarantines of students with no symptoms, even if they're not wearing masks. But that violates state law, and no one else agreed to it.

Members spent a lot of time decrying Joyner's insistence that students quarantine for a full 14 days. State rules allow quarantines of seven or 10 days, based on students remaining symptom free and/or getting a negative test. But the rules also call for masks and social distancing when those students return to schools early. Union County Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw said Joyner won’t authorize the early returns because the district isn’t meeting those requirements.

Vice Chair Kathy Heintel argued that it’s time to quit wrangling over those details and take the simplest approach to avoiding quarantines.

"It really just doesn’t matter," she said. "The only thing we’re left with is a mask mandate for a month to see if we can get over this."

Debate Is Far From Over

But when it came to a vote, five of the nine members voted not to require masks, even knowing that will continue to require quarantines. Merrell, Bention, Matt Helms, Gary Sides and Todd Price voted to continue leaving the decision to employees, students and parents.

Heintel, John Kirkpatrick IV, Joseph Morreale and Sarah May voted for a mandate.

After the vote Kirkpatrick chided colleagues who stuck by the mask option.

"This is an opportunity for us to help save our children and our families. If we're concerned about them, you just have to do some things you don't want to do," he said. "We keep going through these games and these circles, and we have an opportunity to put our pride aside, or put whatever agenda we have to say, 'Let's see how this will work and what the outcome will be by the next meeting.' And again, this is what we've done."

The debate still isn’t over. Board members say they’re going to keep trying to negotiate shorter quarantines without a mask mandate. And state law now requires all school boards to vote on their mask policies every month.

The last time the Union board voted, it was 7 to 2 for optional masks.

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