Cohen threatens Union County school board with legal action over quarantine rules

Union County issues statement, citing unhelpful county health officials and lack of authority for a district to quarantine students

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 — North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen issued a letter to the Union County school board threatening potential legal action over the district’s decision to drop contact tracing and quarantine processes.

In a letter dated Sept. 15, Cohen cited the “highly contagious Delta variant” was in all 100 of the state’s counties and that “children under 18 are being hit particularly hard in this latest surge.”  She went on to write that Union County has the third-highest number of COVID cases in kids under the age of 18 for the week ending Sept. 11.

“Excluding students from school should be a last resort,” Cohen said in a statement. “The guidance and recommendations in our StrongSchoolsNC Public Health toolkit are designed to safely keep students in classrooms.”

“Failure to adhere to the isolation and quarantine policies in the Toolkit places students, teachers, and staff, as well as those living in their households and communities, at significant risk of being infected with COVID-19, a highly contagious virus,” wrote Cohen. “This failure also creates a substantial threat of serious adverse health consequences for students, teachers, staff, and the public more broadly. Such threats pose an imminent hazard to public health. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-2(3); id. § 130A-20.”

In her letter, Cohen asked the board members to rescind their Sept. 13 motion and urged them to adopt the entire StrongSchoolsNC toolkit or “at the very least, reimpose the requirements to cooperate with local health officials” when it comes to identifying those who may have been exposed to COVID.

“If Union County public schools do not take such steps by September 17th, legal action may be required to protect the public’s health,” wrote Cohen in closing.

The same day Cohen issued her letter, Union County schools published a statement on its website with a long explanation of their Sept. 13 vote, noting that the school board’s decision came after “unsuccessful attempts to work with the Union County Health Department on how best to facilitate contact tracing and quarantines.”

According to the statement, Union County Health Department officials would not work with the district on reducing quarantine times if students presented a negative test or other mitigation measures were used.

“School officials made this request to minimize the impact a quarantine has on students and their families,” the Union County Public Schools statement reads. “Local health officials would not consider this request despite the fact that health officials around the state have implemented similar measures.”

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.”

Union County Public Schools statement says that “In his letter, the health director states that he has neither directed UCPS to use any particular length of quarantine period nor mandated UCPS follow any particular control measures regarding COVID-19.”

The statement goes on to say that “Since last school year and into this school year, UCPS staff have been advised by local health officials to use only the 14-day quarantine period, so the health department’s statement that UCPS was not under a directive to use a specific quarantine period was a surprise.”

“School districts do not have legal authority to issue quarantine or isolation orders to students or staff members,” the district’s statement says. “While school systems may temporarily remove a child from school, school systems have no authority to require students or staff to stay at home.”

Cohen’s letter said that Union County has s 16.2% positive test rate, which she said is much higher than the state’s preferred rate of 5%. Critics have pointed out that nearly the entire state has been considered to have elevated case rates due to continued increased testing in schools, workplaces, and drive-thru clinics coupled with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services setting a goal rate at 5%.

The Union County schools said that the district is “committed to mitigating and stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.” The district also refuted Cohen’s claims about infections in their district using her own agency’s data:

“Data provided by the NC Department of Health and Human Services from the period of August 31 through September 13 shows that the rate of transmission in our schools was lower than many other districts in our state that have a mandated face covering requirement. (here)

The data referred to by Union County Schools captures positive tests for the time period of Sept. 2 -15. During that time period of the last 14 days, there have been 2,394 positive tests out of a population of
240,247. The case rate for that 14 day period comes in at 9.963 per 1,000 people.

Union County Public Schools statement closed with a list of actions they will continue to take:

  • UCPS will continue to report positive cases to the local health department as required by law.
  • UCPS will continue to isolate students and staff members if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • UCPS will communicate with parents when there is a positive case in their child’s school.
  • UCPS use the dashboard to communicate with parents when there is a positive case in their child’s school (here)
  • UCPS will support the efforts of the local health department in its effort to contact trace when a positive case in the school is reported. It is our understanding that the health department will contact trace when there are positive cases in schools and will contact parents as well. (here)
  • UCPS will continue to support all parents, students and staff members in their decision on whether to wear a face covering.
  • UCPS will continue to follow any mandated control measures, including quarantine orders, implemented by those state and local health officials that have the authority to do so.

Changes to the StrongSchoolsNC toolkit in July allowing for districts to make masks optional. In doing so, 62 districts voted to let parents decide on masks for their children.

Union County’s school board with one board was among those who made masks optional and one of the very few districts that kept them optional.  Only a handful of districts remained mask optional after Governor Roy Cooper issued a letter telling boards they should reverse course.

Yancey County’s school board also pushed back, has remained mask optional, and its board chair issued a letter accusing Cooper of trying to intimidate school officials.

“Upon receiving a personal letter from Gov. Roy Cooper, I have chosen to publicly share the intimidating and coercive nature of his letter towards us for the decision that we unanimously made,” Fortner wrote.

The Yancey school board chair also said that Cooper was offloading his duties onto local school boards.

About A.P. Dillon 512 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_