Cohen legal threat to school district exposes contact tracing, quarantine authority issues

Union County’s Monday morning vote puts contact tracing responsibility on local health dept.

N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services secretary Mandy Cohen briefs media from the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — Last week, North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen issued a letter to the Union County school board threatening legal action over the district’s decision to drop contact tracing and quarantine processes. That legal threat and the Union County board’s reaction have exposed issues with quarantine authority and burdensome contact tracing.

In the letter dated Sept. 15, Cohen cited the “highly contagious Delta variant” and that “children under 18 are being hit particularly hard in this latest surge.”  She said Union County has the third-highest number of COVID cases in kids under the age of 18 for the week ending Sept. 11.

Cohen’s letter asked Union County school board members to rescind their Sept. 13 motion that rescinded contact tracing and quarantine processes by Sept. 17, or “legal action may be required to protect public health.”

Following Cohen’s letter, Union County schools published a statement with a detailed explanation of their Sept. 13 vote, including the board’s decision was rendered after “unsuccessful attempts to work with the Union County Health Department on how best to facilitate contact tracing and quarantines.”

The statement goes on to say the district demanded that the local health director state in writing what quarantine time periods were to be used. The response letter from the health department said the school district “was not under a directive to use a specific quarantine period.”

In an early morning meeting on Sept. 20, the Union County school board affirmed their previous position and statement, voting 8-1 on shortening quarantine length, recognizing quarantines aligned with state law, and that the local health department was now taking over the contact tracing efforts.

Quarantines will be shortened to 10 days for asymptomatic students and seven days for those who are asymptomatic with negative test results. Students returning to class will have to wear a mask up through the fourteenth day.

Union County schools are currently one of just a handful of mask-optional districts. Being mask-optional coupled with the Union County school board’s recent move to end quarantining and contact tracing highlights flaws in those processes, one of which is effectively presuming students are sick until they get tested to prove they are healthy.

The lone vote against the measures came from at-large member Rev. Jimmy Bention, who said during the meeting that the board’s move “will cause healthy kids to be sent home.”

Bention is correct based on past activity in the district. The StrongSchoolsNC toolkit’s restrictive quarantine measures had put around 7,000 Union County students out of the classroom prior to the board rescinding quarantine processes.

During the COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 21, North State Journal questioned Cohen about the quarantine and contact tracing issues raised by Union County’s school board. She was asked if the StrongSchoolsNC toolkit would be revised.

First, I want to say there are a number of protocols in the StrongSchools toolkit that are incredibly important for the safety and protection of our children and to make sure they are in school safely. I would say vaccine is number one,” Cohen said. “I really want to make sure our kids 12 and up are getting vaccinated.”

“Secondly, I think all schools should be wearing masks as I mentioned going through the data. So, I think masks are incredibly important,” said Cohen.

In the latter half of her response, Cohen finally addressed the question.

“There are responsibilities for our school systems in addition to that related to identifying those who may have been exposed to COVID and excluding them so that the virus doesn’t spread further,” said Cohen. “We’ve clarified that. The Union County school board met earlier this week and are in the process of reinstating the work they have been doing in the past and need to continue to do and our team is involved to make sure it gets operationalized.”

In a follow-up reiterating the contact tracing burden on districts and what was being done to help them, Cohen returned to talking points on “the root of the issue” of the virus spreading.

“We have a lot of virus spreading here in North Carolina, but we have tools to stop it,” said Cohen. “I think you’ve heard about them over and over. We said the first tool is vaccinations, the second tool is masks.”

She also said everyone in the community and those interacting in schools should be masked and vaccinated, “because the more virus circulating, that means there is more virus that is going to end up in our schools.”

Eventually, Cohen said that “we are offering to make sure we can try to ease the burden of the work,” but did not elaborate on what type of help would be offered.

“I am so grateful to the schools that are working really hard to try to make that possible and we’ll do whatever we can to try to ease those burdens,” said Cohen, who added that “we have some automated tools related to contact tracing that we really encourage folks to use that I think helps with some of that burden.”

The higher numbers of students testing positive could be an artifact of increased testing in the state’s schools, which in large part is due to the testing pilot program rolled out by Cohen in December of 2020.

Additionally, more testing is also being done as a direct result of all schools being open for in-person instruction since districts are requiring a negative test from students who are suspected to have COVID or are sent home due to displaying any one of a dozen generic illness symptoms.

About A.P. Dillon 509 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_