State public health officials are threatening the Union County Board of Education after they did away with quarantines and contact tracing for students exposed to the coronavirus.
The school board passed the new rules Monday. Union County is one of the few counties in North Carolina where students are not required to wear masks in school.
“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,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a letter to the school board.
In the letter, dated Wednesday, Cohen asked the Union County School Board to reverse its decision and, “at the very least, to reimpose the requirements to cooperate with local public health officials in identifying individuals exposed to COVID-19 as well as exclude students subject to isolation and quarantine measure.”
She set a deadline of 5 p.m. on Friday.
“If Union County Public Schools do not take such steps by September 17th, legal action may be required to protect the public’s health,” Cohen said.
Cohen and Gov. Roy Cooper released the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit over the summer, laying out recommendations for how schools can reopen safely for in-person classes. The guidelines call for everyone to wear masks indoors on school property and lays out quarantine procedures.
The governor opted to leave it up to individual school districts to decide on mask rules, saying that communities will be more willing to follow mask rules if those decisions are made by local leaders.
“We all share the same goal of keeping our students, teachers and staff in the classroom where children learn best,” Cohen said in a statement Thursday. “During this period of high rates of COVID-19 community transmission, this goal can best be achieved by implementing layered safety measures that protect student, staff and community health.”
Only a handful of school districts in North Carolina, including Union, do not require masks in the classroom. School boards have become the frontline of the mask debate, with public comment periods often becoming protests against mask mandates.
But many school board members across the state have pointed to quarantine rules as a reason for requiring masks. The state’s quarantine guidelines say that students and teachers who are all wearing masks would not have to go on quarantine if they’re exposed in the classroom by someone who is also wearing a mask.
“All schools must comply with control measures prescribed by North Carolina law, including the exclusion of students, teachers and staff subject to isolation or quarantine requirements. Failure to adhere to such control measures poses an immediate and substantial threat to the health and safety of students and staff, their families and the community and may result in legal action,” DHHS said in a news release Thursday.