Playing politics with a virus that has no ideology is a deadly game

Published September 16, 2021


The Union County Board of Education – and other boards that are sharing similar approaches to confronting the COVID-19 pandemic – have their priorities way out of whack.

By their latest action, the folks in charge are more concerned with making political statements than the education, health and safety of Union County’s students, teachers and other district employees. Their action on Monday amounts to malfeasance.

Parents and employees shouldn’t hesitate about putting the school board in Union County -- Harnett and others taking similar actions -- on clear notice that the policies enacted put kids and district workers in real and deadly danger. If those policies aren’t reversed, parents and school system employees will go to court, hold the school boards liable for any child or worker who gets sick and then force policies to change, recognizing the real and present health threat.

The members of the Union County Public Schools Board didn’t like the advice and strong suggestions from the county public health director about quarantine and requiring masks to protect students, teachers and school staff from the spread of COVID-19 virus. The fact that Gov. Roy Cooper made specific note of the districts lack of a masking mandate probably didn’t thrill them.

Unfortunately they expressed their discontent by jeopardizing the health, safety and lives of the school districts 41,500 students and workers in an early Monday morning 13-minute emergency meeting – voting 8-1 to “immediately” stop COVID-19 contact tracing and largely cut back on quarantine requirements in the district’s schools. Anyone not showing any symptoms or having a negative COVID diagnosis regardless of any contract tracing, could immediately return to school. 

The district continues to be one of the few in the state that does not have a mask requirement and skirts some of the basic safety measures in the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

School boards have had to face irrational and angry protests. Threats shut down Moore County’s school board meeting this week. In some communities, out-of-control protests and un-schooled boards are prompting retreats on necessary protocols to fight the pandemic.

“Without a universal mask requirement in Union County Public Schools, a 14-day quarantine period remains the best option to provide for the protection of students, teachers, staff and members of the community,” Union County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner told the school board in a Sept. 10 letter.

As of last week, 480 students and staff in the school system tested COVID-19 positive while 7,285 – 15% of the district’s total enrollment – were in quarantine.

The Union school board is having none of it. No masks, no contact tracing, no quarantining, the board ordered. Ignore the facts and the problem goes away? Is that the misguided lesson this board and others are teaching?

That is irresponsible. It presents a problem for the schools and threatens the entire community.

Cajoling by expert health leaders and polite persuasion from the governor are being met with strident resistance. It may be time to replace the gentle hand of persuasion with a swift kick in the butt.

Would responsible parents send their children to schools where lack of precautions means there is a real chance of exposure to the deadly virus; where they might contact and spread it to others; or where worst of all, they’d be made ill? Would reasonable adults subject themselves to that kind of working environment?

No way - obviously.

While selfish, egotistical demagogues like U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn pander and exploit for their selfish gratification, responsible voices and officials cannot be muted.

The governor, the state superintendent of Public Instruction, the State Board of Education and the General Assembly should and rise in unison to stand by science to protect our children and the health of our communities.

For recalcitrant boards like Union, Harnett County and others, there needs to be more than “suggested” guidelines that are met with ridicule and rejection.

Cooper, with backing from Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt and the state Board of Ed, should issue an executive order along with directives that will make it clear when school systems refuse to take appropriate health and safety precautions, they will be held to account.

Further, the General Assembly needs to pass complimentary legislation making it clear that, in the same way state law requires students to have 10 immunizations to enroll in a public school, all eligible students, teachers and school staff must now demonstrate they have been vaccinated or agree to be tested weekly). Further, they must take necessary measures – such as requiring masks – to prevent the spread of the virus.

Political egos must not blind anyone from recognizing the virus’ deadly reality. It has no ideology or bias.

A school board’s priority is simple -- assure students, faculty and staff have the best resources and environment to learn and teach. If it won’t do it then officials in Raleigh – the governor, the superintendent of public instruction and the legislature – need to do their job and force them.