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.

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