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- In a speech opposing mask mandates, Willis pushed back against criticism of Union County schools by saying no students, staff, or anyone "related to" the school system was currently hospitalized.
- On the day he spoke, no students or staff members were hospitalized. But it's unclear if anyone "related to" the school system was hospitalized, since the district doesn't track the health status of its contractors.
- Although some parents opposed Union County's masks-optional policy, the school board faced its harshest criticism for halting its quarantine and contact-tracing practices.
A North Carolina legislator dismissed the need for mask mandates in schools, citing his home county’s recent COVID-19 hospitalization counts as evidence they’ve been doing just fine without them.
North Carolina has no statewide mask mandate for students. However, until recently, state health officials recommended that students wear masks and many school districts required them.
COVID-19 infections have declined since late January, prompting Republican lawmakers to push a bill that would block school mask mandates altogether. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper later vetoed it. During a Feb. 17 debate on the state House floor, Rep. David Willis, R-Union County, rose with a microphone to praise his local school leaders for their move to make masks optional.
"As of today in Union County — after being threatened that we were killing kids and killing teachers and killing staff and running people off — there are exactly zero students, staff, members, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, yard workers, maintenance people, delivery people, anyone in Union County in the hospital related to our school system with COVID," Willis said.
This made us wonder: Who has criticized Union County school policies, and was Willis right about the Union school district’s hospitalization numbers?
On the day Willis spoke, his comments accurately reflected the number of Union school district employees and students hospitalized with COVID-19. However, it’s misleading for Willis to suggest that there are no hospitalizations among people "related to" the Union County Public School system, since the term is so vague that it isn’t quantifiable. His comments also gloss over the reasons why the Union County school system has faced criticism.
PolitiFact NC reached out to Union County Public Schools on Feb. 17, shortly after Willis spoke on the state House floor. We spoke by phone with Tahira Stalberte, assistant superintendent of communications.
The Union County Public School system has about 5,000 employees and 40,500 students, Stalberte said. On that day, she said, 95 students and 15 staff members were isolating after testing positive for COVID-19, she said. None were hospitalized, she said.
For the entire week, Stalberte said the school system had a total of 127 cases: 112 students and 15 staff members.
It wasn’t clear what Willis meant when he referred to hospitalizations. So we emailed his office twice to ask what he was referring to when he said no one "related to" the school system was hospitalized, but he didn’t respond.
But it’s unclear whether anyone in that category was among the 74 people hospitalized. Stalberte said Union County Public Schools only tracks the COVID-19 status of its students and employees. It doesn’t track COVID-19 infections among employees of the school system’s partners or contractors.
Willis mentioned that Union County had been accused of "killing kids and killing teachers and killing staff and running people off." We don’t know whether Willis was referring to a specific critic or whether he was speaking generally about scrutiny the county has faced. Stalberte said she was "unable to confirm this information."
Union County’s school board was singled out by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services in September for dropping many of its COVID-19 restrictions during a wave of infections.
Union County Public Schools was one of only five North Carolina public school districts to start the 2021-22 year without a mask mandate, according to the North Carolina Association of Educators and WCNC-TV.
And on Sept. 13, the board voted to end quarantine requirements for asymptomatic or nonpositive students and staff while also halting the district’s contact tracing efforts. On Sept. 16, North Carolina’s health department sent a letter to board members. It emphasized that student and staff quarantines were required by law—not merely a recommendation—and pointed out that the board’s action came at a time when the number of COVID cases in Union County were disproportionally high:
"Children under 18 are being hit particularly hard and now have the highest rate of cases in the state for the first time in the pandemic. Children in Union County are among the most impacted. Union County had the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state for children under 18 for the week ending Sept. 11. This rate is substantially higher than counties of similar size and population, including Cumberland, Cabarrus and Durham."
The health department is led by a secretary who was picked by Cooper, a Democrat. But the department wasn’t alone in its agitation with the Republican-majority school board. After the district leaders’ quarantine decision, the all-Republican Union County commissioners expressed their lack of confidence in the school board through a 3-2 vote. The Charlotte Observer and WCNC reported on the conflict. A few days later, the school board reimplemented its quarantine policies in accordance with state law.
Union County, the eighth-largest in a state with 100 counties, has the eighth largest number of cases and the 11th most deaths in the state. It has the 49th most cases per 100,000 residents, according to WRAL-TV.
Sandeep Patel, a physician who has a child in Union County schools, is a member of the SOS Union County group of parents who have called for stronger COVID policies. In an email, Patel told PolitiFact NC that the district’s pandemic strategies shouldn’t be judged by hospitalizations on a single day.
"People really need to look at what their response was in the worst of times," Patel said. "Despite the times of extreme surge in cases, this board of education failed to implement even temporary measures to do their small part in helping to reduce community transmission."
Willis said that, despite criticism of the Union County school board, none of its employees and no one "related to" the school system was hospitalized with COVID-19.
The school system told PolitiFact that no employees were hospitalized with COVID-19 the day Willis spoke. But its spokeswoman said the district doesn’t track the health status of people who work with schools but aren’t school system employees.
It’s also misleading for Willis to suggest that the school district’s lack of hospitalizations on a particular day demonstrates that criticism of the school leaders is unwarranted.
Willis’ statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. That’s our definition of Half True.
Video of North Carolina House of Representatives session on Feb. 17, 2022.
Story by WRAL, "Republican lawmakers plan bid to ban schools from requiring face masks," posted Feb. 15, 2022.
Telephone and email interviews with Tahira Stalberte, assistant superintendent of communications.
Email exchange with Sandeep Patel, a physician who has a child in Union County schools.
Stories by WCNC, "Union County Public Schools board votes to keep masks optional," posted Sept. 6, 2021; "Union County schools vote to immediately end contact tracing and quarantine for non-positive students and staff," posted Sept. 13, 2021; "Union County school board votes to recognize quarantines for close contacts of COVID-19 cases," posted Sept. 17, 2021.
Statement released by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Sept. 16, 2021.
Story by the Charlotte Observer, "‘Russian roulette with our children.’ NC county leader scolds Union school board," posted Sept. 29, 2021.
Story by WSOC, "Parent group wants state to force Union County schools to follow COVID-19 guidelines," posted Feb. 3, 2022.
Story by WFAE, "Union County doctors say public, school board need to hear their case for masks," posted Sept. 10, 2021.
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