Union County School Board Votes to Honor COVID-19 Quarantines But Won’t Do Contact Tracing | DFA 90.7

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The Union County School Board voted Monday morning to honor the state’s COVID-19 quarantine laws, but district staff will not re-engage 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 requiring staff and students to cover their faces.

Since Monday, it is one of the three districts in North Carolina that allows people to be unmasked inside schools, although two others voted to drop mask requirements soon.

Vice President Kathy Heintel said on Monday that the Union County Health Department had taken over contact tracing and was no longer insisting that all those exposed to COVID-19 must be kept outside for 14 days. She proposed that the district continue to report relevant information on positive cases to the health department.

The motion also said that “UCPS will recognize quarantines according to state law of students and staff who are considered close contact with a COVID-positive case.”

It was approved 8-1, with board member Jimmy Bention Sr. opposing “because this motion will require healthy children to be sent home.”

The board spent nearly two hours behind closed doors with the lawyer before coming to the vote.

This year’s state quarantine rules allow students who have close contact with someone who tests positive to stay in class unless they develop symptoms or are positive themselves. But this is only true if 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 quarantined students, nearly a fifth of the student body. On September 13, the board held an emergency meeting and voted to bring back all students who do not show symptoms of COVID-19 or test positive. It was then that the council also voted to remove district staff, including school nurses, from contact tracing, handing over this task to the health department.

The district reported on Friday that 1,659 students were “isolated or excluded”. The district also reported a drop in the number of students who tested positive last week, from 449 to 319.

Monday’s emergency meeting came after North Carolina Health Secretary Mandy Cohen threatened the district with legal action if it broke quarantine rules.

After Monday’s meeting, UCPS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said she was not yet sure whether the students who were brought back to class last week will need to be sent home. She said staff, including school nurses, would not return to contact tracing.

“We will help provide information to the county, but our staff will not do contact tracing as we previously did,” Stalberte said.

Shortly before noon, the council issued a statement explain the vote. He says the health service now allows exposed students to return to class after seven or 10 days, based on a negative test or no symptoms, rather than insisting on 14-day quarantines. And he points out that masks remain optional.

It is not known whether the transfer of contact tracing responsibilities will delay the quarantine of students who are potentially exposed and who could spread the COVID-19 virus.

As of noon, the state Department of Health and Social Services had not publicly responded to the board’s vote. Heintel and board chair Melissa Merrell had not responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Gaston County School Board will vote on Monday evening on whether to maintain his mask mandate. State law requires districts to vote on mask use policies on a monthly basis.

Update: September 20, 2021 at 12:13 p.m. EDT


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