Cohen tells Union school board to follow COVID requirements or face possible legal action

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The Union County school board needs to rescind a new policy that eliminates COVID-19 quarantine measures for most students and staff by 5 p.m. Friday, or “legal action may be required to protect the public’s health,” North Carolina’s top health official said Wednesday.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, wrote a letter to the Union County school board Wednesday. She urges the board to follow required policies for quarantining, isolating and excluding students, teachers and staff who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19.

Not following the rules poses “an imminent hazard to public health,” Cohen wrote to UCPS Board of Education Chairperson Melissa Merrell.

“I want to highlight the concern that the action of the Union County Board of Education poses an imminent threat of serious adverse health consequences for students, teachers, staff and the public more broadly,” Cohen wrote.

Merrell responded to The Observer’s request for comment late Wednesday night. Her response was a link to a statement from the board following the Monday, Sept. 13 meeting where board members voted 8-1 to do away with contact tracing and most quarantine stipulations. The statement is posted on the district’s website and was published Wednesday.

According to the statement, the board’s decision came after unsuccessful attempts to work with the Union County Health Department on how best to facilitate contact tracing and quarantines.

“In accordance with state law, it is the responsibility of local and state health officials to conduct contact tracing and issue quarantine and isolation orders,” the statement reads. “It is the responsibility of Union County Public Schools, and all local school district, to follow the control measures required by local and state health officials.”

According to its statement, the school board believes school districts do not have legal authority to issue quarantine or isolation orders to students or staff members.

Union County school staff, according to district officials, will still report any positive cases to the Union County Health Department and provide information as required by the health department.

“UCPS believes that school is the safest place for children to be and that students who show no signs of COVID-19 symptoms should be in school learning, which is why school officials attempted to work with the local health department to shorten the quarantine period for asymptomatic students,” the statement reads. “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.”

It is unclear whether the school board will make any change in policy before Cohen’s 5 p.m. Friday deadline. Merrell did not respond to a question from the Observer about how she views Cohen’s letter, claiming public schools in Union County are now out of compliance with North Carolina K-12 pandemic requirements.

Earlier this week, the school board halted COVID-19 contact tracing in schools and most quarantine procedures. More than 7,000 students who had been quarantining were allowed back in school Monday morning.

Union County schools now will only make sure students stay home if they are showing symptoms or have themselves tested positive, instead of requiring a proactive quarantine among students and staff after a known COVID-19 exposure.

Cohen wrote that the county’s seven-day COVID-19 case average is more than five times above the threshold for high transmission as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The percent of tests that are positive in Union County is 16.2%, well above .... the state’s five percent goal,” Cohen writes in the letter first reported by WSOC.

State health officials say vaccinations, mask wearing and COVID-19 testing remain other tools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. UCPS does not have a mask mandate except on school buses.

Cohen said quarantining is a “longstanding public health control measure” to stop the spread of communicable disease. Following the required protocols is the schools’ obligation to follow the state’s public health laws.

Union County doesn’t have mask mandate

At the time of the board’s vote to scale back COVID-19 quarantines, close to 17% of the school district’s students were not in school, either because they contracted COVID-19 or had close contact at school with someone who was sick. Union County schools have nearly the same number of cases among students and staff as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which has an enrollment more than three times higher.

In CMS and schools nationwide with strict indoor mask mandates, the number of people forced to stay home after being exposed to the virus is far less. Health experts have said universal masking cuts down on transmission of COVID-19 and proactive quarantining reduces the risk of a single case becoming an outbreak in a school.

Few outbreaks in Charlotte schools. Here’s the latest COVID data.

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