Union County’s School Board Is Unfit for Office

(Image via AP Photo/John Locher)

By Billy Ball

September 14, 2021

By abandoning quarantine and contact tracing, Union County school leaders have put their children and staff in an impossible situation.

The duties of a local school board member in North Carolina are legion, but among those responsibilities — as summarized by the NC School Boards Association — is the requirement that boards provide “adequate school facilities.”

Union County’s Board of Education in this, and in so many other ways, has failed its students and staff.

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The local board, facing the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for children under 18, voted 8-1 Monday to drop contact tracing and quarantine requirements for students and personnel exposed to COVID-19. That means that a child or staffer could be exposed to the virus one day and return to school the next.

These board members made their decision in one of just three North Carolina school districts that, as of Sept. 14, makes masks optional in schools despite overwhelming evidence that masks are effective at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

They did so in the midst of a COVID-19 resurgence fueled by the Delta variant that has crammed the state’s ICUs with sick and dying patients.

They did so in a district with 479 positive cases and more than 7,300 quarantined students and staff just four weeks into the traditional school year. 

It tends to be hyperbole when we say that a politician’s actions should be illegal. In this case, it’s an understatement. 

It should be against the law in the state of North Carolina for local school board members to put their children at such risk, directly flouting local, state, and federal public health guidance. 

I would not send my worst enemy to such a poorly regulated facility in the midst of a deadly pandemic. And Union County school board members would willfully send those who they hold most dear.

All because of a deluge of badly misinformed social media memes and an errant set of political views.

It is true that children have fared better with COVID-19 than adults. But children can still spread this extremely contagious virus, and it is not, as one North Carolina health provider put it to me this year, a “zero-risk” scenario for children. Some children will get very sick. Some will die.

A thriving spread environment offers further opportunity for this pestilential virus to mutate into a more dangerous variant. We can already look to the Delta variant as a direct result of some folks’ collective refusal to vaccinate or mask up.

“The mall has a mask mandate and I feel safer there than at school and it should be the other way around,” Sydney, an 11th-grader, told Union County board members Monday night, according to WCNC-NBC in Charlotte. 

I covered Union County schools at the local newspaper in Monroe more than a decade ago. This suburb of Charlotte might be dominated by the Republican Party — which has offered mixed messages on COVID, to say the least. Yet one-party rule never toned down the feistiness of local politicians. Meetings could turn nasty.  

But this? This is something else entirely. This is madness. The Titanic is sinking and Union County school board members, rather than packing their children into lifeboats, have thrown them overboard into the icy waters of the Atlantic.

No doubt these board members have the support of many parents in the community. But as loud as parents might have been, the board should have heard the health director’s voice the loudest. 

“As the Union County Public Health Director, I continue to hold the view that a 14-day quarantine period is the best, safest option to control the spread of COVID-19 in schools based on all the data that is available to us,” County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner wrote in a letter to the board last week. “This guidance has been and remains heavily influenced by the absence of a mandatory masking policy to help keep children and staff safe at school, a factor that currently applies to fewer than 5% of North Carolina students.” 

That letter was four pages long and included a few thousand words. It appears the Union County Board of Education ignored or disregarded every one of them.

We are all sad, frustrated, and afraid. And there is a damnable temptation to throw up our hands and quit. But “to hell with it” is not a policy. It is not a plan. It is a failure. It is this board abjuring its responsibility to the most basic thing a school district must offer — a safe place for kids to learn. 

And if this board is so hellbent to make a point, if it is so eager to renounce its duties, they should make it official and resign. 


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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