Union Schools Could Face 'Legal Action' Over Quarantine Rules, NC Health Chief Says
The Union County Board of Education has no plans to meet after a threat of legal action from the state of North Carolina if the board does not reinstate its quarantine rules, board chairperson Melissa Merrell said on Thursday.
North Carolina’s top health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, said in a letter on Wednesday that the Union County Board of Education could face legal action if it does not reinstate quarantine rules.
Since a board vote on Monday, students and staff in Union County Public Schools have not been required to quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19, unless they have symptoms or a positive coronavirus test. The board passed a measure 8-1 that ceded all school contact tracing and quarantine guidance responsibilities to the Union County Health Department. The Rev. John Kirkpatrick IV was the only board member to vote against the move in a specially called Zoom meeting that lasted less than 15 minutes.
In a letter to Merrell on Wednesday, Cohen requested that the board rescind the motion by Friday at 5 p.m., saying that the board’s decision “poses an imminent threat of serious adverse health consequences” for school staff, students and the general public and that isolation and quarantine are required procedures for schools in North Carolina’s StrongSchoolsNC toolkit.
If that deadline is not met, Cohen said “legal action may be required to protect the public’s health.” But Merrell said in an email to WFAE on Thursday that the board has no plans to meet either Thursday or Friday.
“School districts do not have legal authority to issue quarantine or isolation orders to students or staff members,” the Union County board said in a statement. The board said only local and state health officials have this authority.
The statement continued: “Without the local health department using its lawful authority to issue quarantine orders, choose the appropriate length of quarantines, assist with contact tracing, or issue other control measures, the health department has placed UCPS in a position where we cannot continue to effectively contact trace or mandate quarantine.”
The district had previously said in a statement following Monday’s vote that the “statutory authority of managing contact tracing and quarantine is that of Union County Public Health.”
A spokesperson for Union County Public Health told WFAE in a statement Monday that while the primary responsibility for contact tracing belongs to the public health department, it is a “shared responsibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic” according to the state’s StrongSchoolsNC toolkit.
Meanwhile, Union County remains one of five North Carolina school districts that does not require masks in schools, defying the recommendations of public health officials.
Last week, the Union County district's COVID-19 dashboard reported 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.