Union Co. To Comply With Covid Protocols Amid Lawsuit Threat

Five-year-old Berkeley Goss reads through his favorite book about bugs inside his Monroe, N.C. home. His parents, Jeff and Emily Goss chose to pull him out of the Union County School District where he had attended the first week of in-person kindergarten fearing the lack of mask requirements would lead to a COVID-19 infection for Berkeley or his at-risk family members. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)
Five-year-old Berkeley Goss reads through his favorite book about bugs inside his Monroe, N.C. home. His parents, Jeff and Emily Goss chose to pull him out of the Union County School District where he had attended the first week of in-person kindergarten fearing the lack of mask requirements would lead to a COVID-19 infection for Berkeley or his at-risk family members. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Union County's school board voted Monday to modify the district's quarantine protocols to comply with state law and let the county health department lead contact-tracing efforts.

The move comes after the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services threatened to sue the district for overhauling contact-tracing procedures and allowing most of its 7,000 quarantined students back into the classroom so long as they are not symptomatic or infected with COVID-19.

“UCPS will recognize quarantines in accordance with state law of students and staff who are considered close contacts with a COVID-19 positive case,” said Kathy Heintel, a member of the board.

Because it is one of a handful of districts not compelling students or staff to wear masks and does not have an online learning option, some Union County parents say the quarantines have amounted to 14 days of near-total learning loss.

Roughly one-sixth of the district's 39,000 enrolled pupils were stuck at home the week before the district substantially changed its COVID-19 protocols. Less than 1,700 kids were quarantined last week after the changes, a 77% weekly drop.

The district said in a statement that quarantines will be shortened to 10 days for asymptomatic students and seven days for those who are asymptomatic and have gotten a negative test result. Returning pupils will need to be masked through the 14th day.

The measure passed 8-1, with the Rev. Jimmy Bention the lone objector. He said he could not support it because it “will cause healthy kids to be sent home.”

Mandy Cohen, the state's top public health official, threatened legal action if the board did not update its policies.

“NCDHHS, UCPS and the (local health department) are continuing to work together on an operational plan that will clarify steps and roles in the process,” Cohen's office said in a statement. “These actions are critical to protect student, staff and community health.”

Emily Goss decided to home-school her 5-year-old son, Berkeley, after the kindergartener was quarantined early in the school year without a remote learning option.

“We didn’t really see a choice but to pull out because, at least in Union County, it’s just gonna keep being a political fight all year long,” Goss said.

Some parents blame the district for refusing to mandate masks to curb virus spread, but they also fault the governor and other state leaders for not doing more to intervene. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law last month that shifts more power to local school boards and allows them revisit their masking policies every month. Cooper's administration no longer requires a statewide mask mandate or remote learning option.

In the meantime, parents continue to make difficult choices.

Sushanth Kancharla, a father of two elementary school students in the district, kept his kids in the classroom, but fears for their safety because of the lack of a mask mandate.

“When I send them to school, I want them to come back safely and also not get quarantined and not miss school," Kancharla said. "Every day that they go to school, it’s kind of rolling the dice on it and seeing what happens. It’s quite unfortunate. This is something that can be completely avoidable.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.