UNION COUNTY, N.C. — As schools across the state are set to break for the holiday season, they also are debating how to return and deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Two of Union County’s governing bodies voted this month to ask the state to lift some COVID-19 protocols upon return, namely contact tracing and quarantines.
“The presence of COVID-19 in our state and county is likely to persist well into the future without a known or defined end,” the joint resolution reads. “We support the work and guidance of our Public Health Director and will continue to partner with local public health officials to ensure appropriate responses if the data regarding impacts of COVID-19 on students and staff indicates a need for more intense strategic responses.”
County commissioners unanimously passed it first, then UCPS school board members approved it 8-1 December 7, 2021.
In their decision, approving school board members said lifting the protocols would allow what they call, “healthy” students, to remain in school and no longer isolate at home. Especially, as board members said in their view, it was unlikely the COVID-19 pandemic would ever have a concrete end date.
The debate on the best way to handle contact tracing and quarantines has raged for months in Union County, with strong opinions on all sides of the debate. A Weddington High School senior said the board’s most recent vote, in favor of the resolution, was particularly frustrating.
“I know that I go to a school where COVID is probably all over the place, and I did not want to pass the virus onto them. So, I had to abstain from seeing my own family, who mind you, are very, very, very old, because UCPS doesn’t want to make the right decision and make us wear our masks and contact trace properly and quarantine properly,” said Grant Dougan after school this week.
Dougan said in his view, the board’s argument is flawed. Dougan said he believes the pandemic is not ending because the board and others have not taken it seriously.
“If I sit here and scrub dishes all day long, while putting absolutely no arm into it, and the dishes don’t get clean — and then I go and I pout to my mom saying that ‘the dishes aren’t getting clean and that we should just stop washing dishes altogether,’ how does that make any sense when I was never trying in the first place,” Dougan said while cleaning dishes for his mom.
Despite the board’s decision, the soon-to-be graduate said COVID-19 was actually not the biggest thing he stressed about earlier this school year.
“I feel as though coming back to classes just on the spot, it was just — I feel a little unprepared for it. And I’ve adjusted now, but I feel like that was the bigger stress,” Dougan said.
And, all things considered, he said it’s been good to be back.
“I get to see my friends again through something other than a screen. And, there’s definitely something to be said for getting to talk to your teachers in person, get help in person rather than sending emails all the time,” he added.
But, he said COVID-19 is never far from his mind, especially any time a classmate starts having symptoms or starts wearing a mask to school. In the December school board meeting, Chairperson Melissa Merrell said the county would consider being a test of a transitional phase of fewer protocols.
“Because, I think we’d be a perfect example, or you know, a study— to allow us to move forward because we have been— you know, we haven’t wavered back and forth, we’ve been mask optional the whole time,” Merrell said to the county’s health director during the meeting.
It’s unclear what will happen with the joint resolution and what other counties and school boards would adopt similar language, if any. Merrell said during the December meeting it was their goal to disseminate the language to other counties and school boards across the state for consideration.
In emails Friday, a Union County spokesperson said county commissioners had not heard from other counties. In a separate email, a UCPS spokesperson said the school board had heard from Pender County, but could not comment on what decision, if any, Pender County had made.