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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 To Honor COVID-19 Quarantines But Won't Do Contact Tracing

UCPS Parkwood Middle.jpeg
UCPS Facebook
Masks are optional at Parkwood Middle School and other Union County public schools.

The Union County school board voted Monday morning to honor the state's COVID-19 quarantine laws, but district staff will not reengage in contact tracing.

The three-minute public meeting was the latest in a back-and-forth between state health officials, who want schools to require masks, and the Union County school board, which wants to reduce quarantines without forcing staff and students to cover their faces.

As of Monday, it's one of three districts in North Carolina that allows people to go unmasked inside schools, though two more have voted to drop mask requirements soon.

Vice Chair Kathy Heintel said Monday that the Union County health department has taken over contact tracing and is no longer insisting that everyone exposed to COVID-19 must stay out for 14 days. She made a motion that the district will continue to report relevant information about positive cases to the health department.

The motion also said that "UCPS will recognize quarantines in accordance with state law of students and staff who are considered close contacts with a COVID-positive case."

It was approved 8-1, with board member Jimmy Bention Sr. opposed "because this motion will require healthy kids to be sent home."

The board spent almost two hours in closed session with the attorney before emerging for the vote.

This year's state quarantine rules allow students who have close contact with someone who tests positive to remain in class unless they develop symptoms or test positive themselves. But that's only true if the students are vaccinated or if everyone involved is properly masked.

By the end of the third week of school, Union County had more than 7,100 students quarantined — close to one-fifth of the student body. On Sept. 13 the board held an emergency meeting and voted to bring back all students who don't have COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test. That's when the board also voted to withdraw district staff, including school nurses, from contact tracing, turning that duty over to the health department.

As of Friday, the district reported that 1,659 students were "isolated or excluded." The district also reported a decline in students testing positive last week, from 449 to 319.

Monday's emergency meeting came after North Carolina Health Secretary Mandy Cohen threatened legal action against the district if it failed to comply with quarantine rules.


Health Officials React

Monday afternoon Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Catie Armstrong said the department got written confirmation that the school district will work with the health department on contact tracing and quarantines. The state, school district and health department "are continuing to work together on an operational plan that will clarify steps and roles in the process," she said.

After Monday's meeting, UCPS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said she didn't yet know if any students who were brought back to class last week will have to be sent back home. She said the staff, including school nurses, will not return to contact tracing.

"We will help provide information to the county, but our staff will not be doing the contact tracing as we did before," Stalberte said.

UC health dept chart.png

Last week the Union County Health Department posted a chart explaining the new process for notifying and quarantining students who are exposed to COVID-19, noting that it is subject to change.

On Sept. 10, Union County Health Director Dennis Joyner and Medical Director Stephen Keener released a video answering questions about masks and quarantines in schools. Both said universal masking is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the need for quarantines.

Some Questions Remain

Shortly before noon, the board issued a statement explaining the vote. It says the health department is now allowing exposed students to return to classes after seven or 10 days, based on a negative test or lack of symptoms, rather than insisting on 14-day quarantines. And it emphasizes that masks remain optional.

It's unclear whether the handoff of contact-tracing responsibilities will delay the quarantining of students who were potentially exposed and who could be spreading the COVID-19 virus.

Heintel and board Chair Melissa Merrell had not responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Gaston County school board will vote Monday evening on whether to maintain its mask mandate. State law requires districts to vote monthly on policies for mask use.

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Updated: September 20, 2021 at 12:13 PM EDT
Updated with response from NC DHHS.