‘I am scared,’ says student leading petition for COVID safety in Union County

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Amid a standoff between local and state health officials and Union County school board members over COVID-19 safety rules, students are chiming in.

A 16-year-old student started a petition shortly after the school board voted 8-1 to stop COVID-19 contact tracing in schools and do away with most mandatory quarantining. Close to 1 in 5 students in Union County Public Schools were quarantined earlier this month.

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Union County Public Schools does not have a mask mandate, although masks are required on buses due to a federal CDC order.

Parents, particularly Union County parents who are also doctors, have long been incensed by the recent decisions to scale back recommended pandemic best practices. While others in the county have fought hard to maintain the district’s status as one of the few school systems in North Carolina keeping masks optional.

“Student voices should be heard in this conversation about contact tracing and masks because ultimately, whatever decision the adults make, affect us kids,” said Sydney, a junior in a Union County Public high school. Her parents have asked the Observer to withhold her last name, saying they fear retribution.

“Students have a right to a safe learning environment, and letting students expose other students to COVID-19 easily is not safe at all. I believe more students should be speaking up about this issue.”

The petition, which calls for the school board to bring back contact tracing and require masks in UCPS, had drawn more than 2,800 signatures as of Friday, with many of the expressing outrage over the lack of protection against COVID-19 at schools and some saying: “No one should be afraid for their health at school.”

Instead of requiring a proactive quarantine among students and staff after a known COVID-19 exposure, Union County schools now only makes sure students stay home if they are showing symptoms or have themselves tested positive. If wider isolation or quarantine orders are warranted, school board officials say the local health department will have to step in.

School board members contend it’s not within a district’s scope to contact trace or quarantine students — it’s the local health department’s job.

On Wednesday, the state got involved. Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, wrote a letter to the Union County school board telling them to reverse the board’s decision or “legal action may be required to protect the public’s health,” North Carolina’s top health official said.

In her letter, Cohen said North Carolina and Union County are experiencing high rates of COVID-19 transmission. 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 5% goal, Cohen wrote.

Cohen said Union County had the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for children under 18 for the week ending Sept 11.

That’s led Sydney, who is vaccinated, to write in her petition: “I am scared to go to school.”

“I haven’t gotten COVID and haven’t had to quarantine, and I wear a mask all day except when I’m eating and try to social distance as much as I can,” Sydney said. “It’s impossible to social distance in the hallways during transition periods and dismissal, though.

“This cause is important to me because I want to be safe in school. I also want my family and friends to be safe, and my classmates and peers, too.”

Sydney sent emails to school board members and a few, including Chairperson Melissa Merrell and member Gary Sides replied, thanking her for her concerns and explaining the board’s position.

“My hope from starting this petition is that Gov. Roy Cooper steps in and puts a statewide mask mandate for students in K-12 public schools into place,” Sydney said. “If Gov. Cooper listens and understands the struggle that UCPS students are going through right now to stay healthy, I think he’ll put in a mask mandate.”

Angel Martin, who has a junior at Marvin Ridge High School, backed the board’s decision. She believes school nurses are overworked and that kids need to be in school — both part of the rationale board members said drove their decision.

“We have had COVID,” Martin said. “My son has been quarantined multiple times because he had symptoms, but he has not tested positive. Our kids need to be in school. If you don’t have symptoms, and you don’t test positive for COVID, they should be in school.”

Martin said she watches the trends every day, and said the perceived battle of adults stems from the state level.

“As much as they say they’re following the science….it’s more of a political stance,” Martin said. “It infuriates me. Follow the science.”

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