Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools must allow investigation of cancer cases at its Smith facility

This evening I spoke at the CMS board meeting to urge district leaders to allow outside investigation of the unusual cancer cases among Smith staff in order to determine whether those illnesses were caused by the facility.  

Among those cases are retired CMS principal (and 2004 district principal of the year) Ynez Olshausen who is currently battling a rare form of cancer, a colleague of mine who had a basal cell carcinoma on her eyelid in her 30s that is far more typical of people over age 70, and multiple individuals who died of cancer at young ages.

CMS needs to get to the bottom of what happened to them.

Over the past few years there have been rumors about a troubling pattern of people who worked at CMS’s Smith facility getting sick. Earlier this year it was reported that the district was closing the building due to widespread health concerns.

What hadn’t been disclosed until recently were the identities of any of those affected. That has now changed since retired CMS Principal Ynez Olshausen revealed she is battling cancer.

I had the absolute privilege of working under Ynez Olshausen’s leadership for about a decade, first at Smith Academy of International Languages and then at Waddell until her retirement. Our library at Waddell and now at SAIL is named in her honor.

Ms. Olshausen built a magnet program that became a national model for language immersion and was named district-wide principal of the year in 2004. One of the things I appreciated about her leadership the most was that she saw each of her employees and students first as people who deserved to be valued for their gifts and supported when they needed it. Not as cogs in a machine but as humans.

CMS is a huge machine, and in large organizations like ours there’s a tendency for the focus to be on numbers in spreadsheets rather than on actual people.

It can be far too easy to forget that our district is made up of individuals who have stories and families and lives.

Ynez Olshausen and the other Smith staff who have been diagnosed with a variety of illnesses deserve a thorough and transparent investigation into any possible connection between the years they spent working in the Smith facility and their medical conditions.

Let’s accept the offer of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to investigate a potential link between cancer diagnoses and the Smith facility, an offer which CMS has reportedly declined.

We need to handle this situation not by sweeping the problem under the rug, but by seeing our current and former Smith employees as people who need our support and by working hard to get to the bottom of what happened to them.

NCDHHS Secretary says Union County Board of Education may face legal action if it doesn’t quarantine individuals exposed to COVID

North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen has requested that the Union County Board of Education rescind its recent motion eliminating COVID quarantine measures for most students and staff, noting that if Union County doesn’t take the step by 5 pm on Friday, September 17, it may face legal action.

First reported by WSOC’s Genevieve Curtis, Dr. Cohen’s letter notes that Union County’s 7-day case average for COVID is “more then five times above the CDC’s threshold for high level of transmission” and cautions that the board’s failure to adhere to state quarantine guidelines “places students, teachers, and staff, as well as those living in their households and communities, at significant risk of being infected with COVID-19.”

You can read Cohen’s letter in its entirety below:

Lincoln County school board prevents doctors from speaking at meeting, ends quarantines for COVID-exposed students and staff

One day after Union County’s Board of Education voted to stop quarantining students and staff who have been exposed to COVID unless they test positive or exhibit symptoms, Lincoln County has followed suit.

At its Tuesday night meeting, the Lincoln County Board of Education denied two Atrium Health doctors the opportunity to address the board, then voted to rescind the school district mask mandate and stop following COVID quarantine protocols outlined in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Strong Schools Toolkit.

The meeting began with Chair Mark Mullen striking two speakers from the agenda: Dr. Inga Kish, a Shelby physician who specializes in Emergency Medicine, and Dr Elisabeth Stoffel who practices Family Medicine in Denver, NC.

The two physicians had presumably attended in order to offer insight on COVID safety but were prevented from doing so because of board policy requiring speakers to sign up several days before the meeting. Board discussion later in the meeting indicated the policy allowed for exceptions, but a motion to allow the physicians to speak had been voted down.

In addition to making masks optional in schools, a motion introduced by Vice Chair Heather Rhyne said the following:

“In regards specifically to COVID-19, effective immediately, unless a student or staff member is positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation, is symptomatic, or has been given a written quarantine order from the local health department, they should be on school campus.”

The motion passed 4-2.

Lincoln County’s move to make masks optional and end quarantines for most students and staff comes one day after the school district confirmed the death of 44 year-old Lincoln County Schools teacher and pastor Cruceta Jeffeirs.

Jeffeirs taught third grade at Battleground Elementary, and family members said her death was the result of complications from COVID-19.

According to the most recent CDC data, Lincoln County is currently experiencing high community COVID transmission with a positivity rate above 15%. Only 45.3% of eligible Lincoln County residents are fully vaccinated against the virus.

Update: Please note the following correction which was submitted by a reader and Lincoln County resident:

As COVID infections and quarantines soar among its students and staff, Union County clings stubbornly to optional masks

Positive cases of COVID and quarantines among students and staff are skyrocketing in Union County, where the board of education is growing increasingly isolated in its stubborn insistence that masks in school buildings remain a matter of personal choice.

Friday marked the end of the second week of school in Union County. When compared with the reported numbers from a week ago (1873 quarantined/176 positive), the number of students and staff confirmed as infected with the virus has more than doubled, and quarantines have nearly tripled.

In one week.

With 41,500 students enrolled, these new numbers mean a whopping 13% of Union County’s public school children are stuck at home, unable to attend in-person classes.

The reality may be even worse.

One Union County high school teacher told me that significant numbers of students in her classes were absent this entire week but not reported as positive or quarantined. Other educators from the county have indicated that the individual breakdowns for positive cases and quarantines for their schools being reported on the UCPS COVID dashboard are well below what they know them to be–in some cases because COVID-related staffing shortages are leading to lags in data collection.

Despite these alarming trends, Union County’s Board of Education continues to allow students and staff to go to school unmasked. It’s one of the very few North Carolina public school districts to do so, and it’s by far the largest.

As of today, 110 of 115 districts are requiring students and staff to wear masks when inside school buildings. The five where masks are optional are Avery, Onslow, Polk, Union and Yancey. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, vaccination rates in those six counties average a full ten points below the state average (48% vs. 58%).

The Union County board hasn’t officially discussed mask policy since August 18, when it ignored pleas by the county’s Public Health Director and Assistant Superintendent for a mask mandate and voted 7-2 to keep masks optional.

At that meeting, Board Chair Melissa Merrell characterized a presentation of spiking COVID metrics as inaccurate, claiming without any evidence that numbers were actually trending downward.

Merrell’s delusional approach to pandemic school policy does not inspire confidence in the many Union County parents that just want their children to be safe and healthy while attending school in person.

Strong leadership in this moment would look like setting personal politics aside, mustering up a little humility, listening to state and local health experts and taking their advice on masks.

Instead, it’s worth monitoring whether the Union County Board of Education’s next move is in exactly the opposite direction.

The Union County chapter of the astroturf group Moms For Liberty is chaired by Britney Bouldin, and it’s a group in which Melissa Merrell is an active participant.

Rather than calling for measures which would slow the spread of the virus, Bouldin and others in her group are beginning to push for quarantine guidelines to be relaxed.

Because everyone knows that the best way to put out a fire is by pouring gasoline on it…

Union County’s Board of Education next meets Tuesday, September 7. The board’s agenda for that meeting indicates that discussions of both quarantines and face coverings are planned.



Union County Board of Education rejects pleas of Public Health Director, keeps masks optional

At last night’s virtual emergency meeting, the Union County Board of Education received an update from staff which included alarming spikes in local COVID rates and pleas from the Public Health Director that the district require students and staff to wear masks in schools.

The board still voted 7-2 to keep masks optional.

Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw presented the COVID update and informed the board about the following trends in Union County’s health:

Percent positivity rate:

June 18: 2.5%
August 18: 13.9%



New daily cases (7 day average):

June 18: 6.7/day
August 18: 125/day



5-18 year old age group:

July 18: 48 positive cases
July 25: 104 positive cases
August 1: 169 positive cases


McCraw also related his conversations with Union County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner, including Joyner’s strong recommendation that the district follow the face covering guidance in the NCDHHS Strong Schools toolkit, which he paraphrased as saying “All schools should require children and staff in schools K-12 to wear face coverings consistently when indoors. Schools should make masks universally required regardless of vaccination status.”

The assistant superintendent offered three reasons for asking the board to require masks. First, he cited public health concern over the increase in COVID numbers. Secondly, he mentioned that it would reduce the number of students having to miss school because of quarantine. Finally, he said masking would reduce the amount of time school nurses had to devote to contact tracing and allow them to focus on general health and wellness.

Board chair Melissa Merrell said it was her understanding that COVID numbers were actually trending downward. She expressed confusion over McCraw’s request that masks be required, saying that the number of children who were infected with the virus didn’t represent a significant number of overall cases:

“We’re in the business of educating students. And those students, we’ve been looking at ages 5-18, and that’s only 14% of this, you know, in your words not mine, trending upward.”

The board then entered closed session. Upon returning, a motion was made by board member John Kirkpatrick to heed district and health department recommendations and begin the year with students masked. The motion failed 7-2 with only Joe Morreale and Kirkpatrick supporting it.

In addition to rejecting the advice of its county health director, the board’s decision ignores the cautionary tale offered by Union Academy, a 2000-student charter school in Union County which began the school year July 26 with a mask policy that essentially made them optional.

The school was immediately hit with a COVID outbreak which forced hundreds of students to miss classes due to quarantine. Masks are now required at Union Academy.

Union County’s choice also bucks a recent local trend, with Gaston County and Cabarrus County–both similarly conservative boards–reversing decisions this week and electing to require masks.

When schools open on Monday, August 23, Union County Public Schools 41,500 students and 5,000 staff members will make it the largest district in the state to allow individuals to go unmasked in buildings.

NC Superintendent opposes Duke scientists’ recommendations on masks in schools

Just weeks after touting the group’s report on 2020-21 COVID spread in NC schools, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Schools Catherine Truitt has come out in stark opposition to the ABC Collaborative’s recommendations on masking for the upcoming school year, saying, “I want students in school this fall, unmasked.”

The ABC Collaborative is a group of National Institutes of Health-funded North Carolina scientists and physicians, primarily from Duke University, who are working to advise school leaders on COVID-safe practices.

At the end of June the group released a report on COVID mitigation measures in NC schools during the 2020-21 school year, finding the schools “did an outstanding job preventing within-school transmission of COVID‐19.”

Superintendent Truitt released a statement citing the group’s report as evidence that schools could successfully operate during the pandemic and advocating for local control over operational decisions such as masking.

But Truitt abandoned her call for local decision making on masks in a recent conversation with NC GOP Chairman Michael Watley, calling on all North Carolina school districts to take the masks off:

Today the co-chairs of the ABC Collaborative, Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman and Dr. Danny Benjamin, published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “We studied one million students. This is what we learned about masking.”

In the piece, Zimmerman and Benjamin cite universal masking as a “close second” behind vaccination as the best way to prevent COVID-19, warning “If we send students to school without masks, we increase their risk of acquiring COVID-19. Some could suffer illness or die.”

After pointing to recent outbreaks of the virus among unmasked, unvaccinated youth, the scientists asked:

“With the evidence now clear that universal masking is linked to lower spread, why not require universal masking? Why seek to gather hundreds of unvaccinated, unmasked individuals in an enclosed space for several hours a day, five days a week?”

It’s a question North Carolina Superintendent of Schools Catherine Truitt needs to answer.

Antimaskers “overthrow” Buncombe County Board of Education over K-12 mask mandate

You might think you know just how far off the rails the science-denying antimask crowd has gone in its efforts to ensure that students in North Carolina’s schools do not have to take common sense safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID.

You’d be wrong.

At an August 5 meeting where the Buncombe County Board of Education had just voted 4-2 to require masks in schools, audience members launched their own mini-January 6 insurrection, choosing new “board members,” and holding a new vote on the mask issue.

The bizarre charade was orchestrated by a woman identified by the Asheville Citizen-Times as Stephanie Parsons. In the tirade that preceded the “coup,” Parsons claimed the figure of 48% unvaccinated in Buncombe County meant 48% of the population did not agree with the mask mandate. She added that the North Carolina Constitution states “if you are not happy with the government that you are to abolish it,” then went on to unilaterally elect a new board via a method called “whoever is crazy enough to stand up and come down here is elected.”

The new “board” unanimously decided masks would be optional.

You can watch the entire surreal episode below:

Cabarrus Board of Education Vice Chair blames pandemic on COVID-infected “illegal aliens”

Just when you think the Cabarrus Board of Education can’t lower its bar any further…

At tonight’s meeting, Vice Chair Tim Furr blamed the ongoing COVID pandemic on infected “illegal aliens” who are being allowed in by our government and sent all over the United States on buses.

Furr’s racist comments, which are transcribed and captured in video below, were interrupted by an incredulous Keshia Sandidge, who asked, “Are we serious right now? Are we serious right now?” before being admonished by board chair Holly Grimsley.

Furr’s rant:

Until this government keeps illegal aliens by the thousands coming across that border without masks, with COVID, putting ’em on buses, sending ’em all over the United States, we’re just beating our heads against the wall.  Because these numbers are gonna continue to rise, and we’re gonna be having this same discussion day after day and week after week.

Most powerful politician in North Carolina encourages people to ignore CDC mask guidance as COVID infections skyrocket

Yesterday North Carolina’s powerful Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger sent a fundraising email to his supporters. The subject line? “CDC issues new guidelines to ignore.”

Berger’s message came a day after the Center for Disease Control updated its mask recommendations in the face of an alarming spike in COVID infections, suggesting among other things that vaccinated people wear masks “in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission” of the virus.

The same day Berger encouraged North Carolinians to ignore mask guidance, 2,633 new cases and a percent positivity rate of 10.8 were reported for the state–the highest number of cases in a single day since February.

Berger’s email suggested that masking guidelines should be treated with the same disregard as recommendations against eating raw cookie dough.

As of Wednesday COVID had killed 611,708 people in the United States.

I was unable to find data on the number of deaths from raw cookie dough.

Mecklenburg plaintiffs who lost school reopening lawsuit forced to pay NCAE attorney’s fees

Five plaintiffs who sued the Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators (CMAE) in September 2020 over COVID-related school building closures have been ordered by a Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge to pay $11,620 in attorney’s fees incurred by CMAE/NCAE while defending the suit.

The lawsuit claimed that NCAE members’ advocacy for remote instruction during the pandemic constituted a violation of North Carolina state law prohibiting strikes, defined in law as “a cessation or deliberate slowing down of work.” It said “NCAE has coordinated a deliberate slowing down of work of CMS by way of denying and/or delaying Active Instruction to CMS Students.”

In the likely event that you didn’t follow that absurd logic, plaintiffs were arguing that educators speaking during public comments at a board meeting and then board members voting to open in Plan C amounted to an unlawful strike.

The suit was dismissed in March 2021, but North Carolina law also allows for the prevailing party to be awarded attorney’s fees in the event of “a complete absence of a justiciable issue of either law or fact raised by the losing party in any pleading.”

In other words, if you waste other people’s time and money by pursuing legal action that clearly has no chance of winning, you are financially responsible for that terrible decision.

Judge Karen Eady-Williams’ order, which you can read in its entirety below, notes that the law expressly permits NCAE and its members “to advocate for workplace safety in the manner alleged in the Complaint” and that the plaintiff’s allegation that NCAE had violated the state constitution was legally insufficient because nonprofit organizations are not state actors.

I’m grateful for the efforts of NCAE’s legal team in standing up for the rights of its members and successfully arguing for the dismissal of this frivolous suit.  There has never been a better time to join NCAE than right now.  For any North Carolina educators who are interested, please feel free to reach out to me for more information, or visit this link.  

Signed-Order-on-Fees