In response to actions taken by the Union County Board of Education, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services issued a letter to the Board’s Chair outlining required COVID-19 control measures all schools in the state must implement to protect student, staff and community health and noting that failure to comply may prompt legal action.
"We all share the same goal of keeping our students, teachers and staff in the classroom where children learn best," said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D. "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."
North Carolina and Union County are experiencing very high rates of COVID-19 transmission driven by the Delta variant. Union County’s seven-day case average is more than five times above the CDC threshold for high transmission and the percent of tests that are positive is 16.2%, well above the CDC’s threshold for high level of transmission and the state’s five percent goal.
Children under 18 are being hit particularly hard and now have the highest rate of cases in the state for the first time in the pandemic. Children in Union County are among the most impacted. Union County had the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for children under 18 for the week ending Sept 11. This rate is substantially higher than counties of similar size and population, including Cumberland, Cabarrus and Durham.
On Sept. 13, 2021, the Union County Board of Education passed a motion to immediately halt all activity of contact tracing and quarantine by Union County School staff and nurses and called for the immediate return of all students who were excluded from school because of COVID-19 exposure. However, 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.
Quarantine is a longstanding public health control measure used to separate an individual who has been exposed to someone who has an infection. The length of time that someone needs to be separated is based upon the period in which they may become infected from the exposure (incubation period). For COVID-19, the incubation period is 14 days. Quarantine is important to stop the spread of an infectious disease because the exposed person is at risk of becoming infected and then spreading the infection to others. Schools are required to exclude students and staff who need to quarantine.
"Excluding students from school should be a last resort," Secretary Cohen said. "The guidance and recommendations in our StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit are designed to safely keep students in classrooms."
Schools can take actions to minimize the number of students who need to be excluded from in-person learning. As set out in the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit, quarantine and exclusion from in-person learning can be avoided for close contacts of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 in the following circumstances:
- Staff and students who are fully vaccinated and do not have symptoms do not need to quarantine or be excluded from school based on exposure.
- Students do not need to quarantine or be excluded from school if they do not have symptoms and face masks are being used appropriately by both the student with COVID-19 and the potentially exposed student. Union County is one of four counties in the state that does not require masks in schools.
- Staff and students who have had a COVID-19 infection in the past 90 days and who do not have symptoms do not need to quarantine or be excluded from school based on exposure.
In addition to getting vaccinated, to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect our communities, NCDHHS recommends everyone wear a mask in indoor public spaces if they live in an area of high or substantial levels of transmission as defined by the CDC until more people are vaccinated and viral transmission decreases. In North Carolina, that is currently all 100 counties.
For more information about COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina, visit MySpot.nc.gov or call the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Help Center at 888-675-4567. You can also text your zip code to 438829 to find vaccine locations near you.