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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 Schools Will Stop COVID-19 Contact Tracing And Most Quarantines

The Union County school board met in a special-called meeting Sept. 13.
Union County
The Union County school board met in a special-called meeting Sept. 13.

Updated Sept. 14, 2021 2:50 p.m.

Students and staff in Union County Public Schools no longer have to quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19, unless they have symptoms or a positive coronavirus test.

In a specially-called Zoom meeting that lasted less than 15 minutes, the Union County Board of Education voted 8-1 Monday morning to immediately stop COVID-19 contact tracing in its schools and to cut back its quarantine requirements. The Rev. John Kirkpatrick IV was the only board member to vote against the motion.

The district said in a news release on Monday that the “statutory authority of managing contact tracing and quarantine is that of Union County Public Health,” an argument multiple board members made during their short meeting.

"It is clear that Union County Public Schools staff does not have the authority to issue quarantine," said board member Gary Sides.

A Union County spokesperson responded with this statement to WFAE via email: "By NC statute, the primary responsibility for contact tracing belongs to Public Health. However, by law, certain parties are required to provide Public Health with necessary and relevant information to assist Public Health in communicable disease control. Additionally, contact tracing direction outlined the Strong Schools toolkit, developed by NCDHHS and adopted for use in all NC public schools by NCDPI, notes the contact tracing responsibility is a shared responsibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Last week, the Union County district's COVID-19 dashboardreported 7,153 students were quarantined after possible exposure and 449 students had tested positive. Two hundred thirty-two staff members were quarantined, according to the dashboard, and 30 staff members tested positive.

“Our staff will continue to handle positive and presumptive positive cases,” Sides said during the Monday meeting. “We will report any positive COVID cases to the Union County Health Department and we will provide information required by the health department.”

Parent Jermatic Chambers said that she was angry and embarrassed by the board's decision Monday. She has three children who attend Union County schools.

"I was shocked. I really did not think that they would take it that far," Chambers said.

She added: “The fact that you would take away quarantine and contact tracing to me says that you don’t care about our kids at all. Why wouldn’t you want to know who’s in the building who has COVID and how they are transferring to other kids?”

Union County is one of just three North Carolina school districts that does not currently require students and staff to wear masks in schools, defying the recommendations of public health officials. It's also the largest school district in the state without a mask requirement. Under North Carolina's quarantine rules, students who are exposed to COVID-19 are allowed to remain at school as long as they have no symptoms if everyone is properly masked. Without universal masking, state guidance says exposed students can be sent home for seven to 14 days.

"Why wouldn’t you want to know who’s in the building who has COVID and how they are transferring to other kids?”
Jermatic Chambers — Union County parent

Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state's Department of Health and Human Services, reemphasized the importance of masking in schools at a news conference on Friday and said they would continue to work with the three districts

“I hope that Union County … will change their mind on this and move to a mandatory mask mandate there in order to protect students,” Cooper said.

Last month, Union County Health Director Dennis Joyner asked the board to reverse its decision not to mandate masks, citing the surging community spread of COVID-19.

In a statement on Monday, Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, called the board's decision to eliminate most quarantines "startling" and "deeply concerning."

"(This) is reckless and flies in the face of Union County's own health department, the state, and federal public health officials," Kelly wrote. "NCAE is looking into safety options for staff and students, especially those who are not eligible for a vaccine during this ongoing pandemic," the statement read, in part.

The Union County Board of Commissioners and the Human Services Board held a joint meeting Monday night. The commissioners did not hold a vote.

Meanwhile, Cabarrus County schools also cut back their COVID-19 contact tracing. The Cabarrus County School Board voted on Monday to stop contact tracing unless two positive cases come from the same classroom, bus or athletic team, WSOC-TV reported. The board voted in August to make masks mandatory for all students and staff.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.