In a statement that could have implications for school systems across the state of North Carolina, on Thursday, Sept.16, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) issued a shot across the bow of Union County.

Recently, the Union County Board of Education made some moves the department did not like and ones that could result in legal action against the school system.

The warning comes at a time when there’s a fierce debate going on in Guilford County about the best way to handle the current school year in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Union County, which has Monroe as the county seat, is southeast of Charlotte and sits on the state’s border with South Carolina.

In response to actions taken by the Union County Board of Education, NCDHHS issued a letter to Union County education officials outlining the state’s required COVID-19 measures that “all schools in the state must implement.”

The department’s Sept. 16 press release warned that a failure to comply could result in legal action against a school system.

The release states, “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.” 

NCDHHS went on to note that Union County – and the state as well – is experiencing high rates of COVID-19 due largely to the Delta variant. It adds that Union County is currently more than five times above the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) threshold for “high transmission.”

In a prepared statement, NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said current state guidelines are meant to keep students safe.

“We all share the same goal of keeping our students, teachers and staff in the classroom where children learn best,” she stated. “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.”

Cohen added, “Excluding students from school should be a last resort,” but also noted that quarantine was an effective method for addressing the spread of COVID-19.