BEAUFORT — Carteret County Board of Education attorney Neil Whitford said Wednesday a letter sent to school boards and superintendents across the state, including Carteret County, is spreading incorrect information regarding COVID-19 safety measures.
“The letter makes statements and conclusions that are fundamentally incorrect,” he said in an email to the News-Times. “There have been other attorneys across the state who have made similar arguments, and they too are incorrect.”
County parents and community members opposed to the school system’s mask mandate have been circulating the letter.
“We have been aware of the letter for a few days now,” Mr. Whitford said Wednesday.
Ceradini Law of Raleigh sent the 15-page letter to local school officials on behalf of NC Citizens for Constitutional Rights LLC, “a North Carolina limited liability company organized to defend the Constitutional Rights of North Carolina citizens,” the letter states.
The letter, signed by Raleigh attorney Matthew Ceradini, claims school boards don’t have the legal authority to implement measures outlined in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, which dictates the COVID-19 safety protocols schools are to follow during the pandemic.
“After appraising the legal status of the Toolkit and its control measures, it is clear that the School Boards do not have the authority to implement these measures without a formal order from NCDHHS or a local health department,” the letter states.
The letter particularly stresses that school boards don’t have the legal authority to quarantine children or staff.
“Such authority rests solely with the NCDHHS and the Local Health Director,” the letter states.
Carteret County currently has a mask mandate for students and staff inside school buildings and requires students to be excluded from school seven days in certain cases. The health department can require students to quarantine longer, depending on circumstances of the exposure.
The school system has not circulated any changes to the masking or exclusion policy as a result of the letter.
In response to the letter’s claims, Mr. Whitford said “school systems do have the authority and the legal responsibility to ‘exclude’ students from campuses when they have been exposed to COVID according to guidance outlined in the Toolkit. The Toolkit itself is not the law. The Public Health Law at Chapter 130A of the General Statutes is the legal foundation for the control measures DHHS has issued. The Toolkit ‘encapsulates’ the law.”
Mr. Whitford said the use of the word “quarantine” by school and health officials has caused confusion regarding schools excluding students.
“The problem is, in the school setting, ‘quarantine’ is not the right word,” Mr. Whitford said. “School systems have no authority to quarantine anyone and we have not done that. The correct word is ‘exclude.’ ‘Exclude’ is an infectious disease control measure. School systems exclude from school campuses students and adults who either have the virus or who are close contacts.”
Mr. Whitford went on to say, “We cannot quarantine them to any particular location. That would be up to either the health department or DHHS. Our jurisdiction is limited to school property.”
In response to a News-Times inquiry about the letter to County Health Director Nina Oliver, public information officer Nick Wilson sent a copy of a document issued Oct. 5 by the NCDHHS regarding school safety protocols. The document, “COVID-19 in Schools: Legal Authority and Requirements,” outlines the legal responsibilities of school districts and local health officials regarding COVID-19 safety protocols for schools.
Ms. Oliver did not respond to a request for comment about the substance of the letter being circulated by the Raleigh lawfirm.
A section of the NCDHHS document states, “For COVID-19, the school must exclude students, teachers, and staff who meet the criteria to isolate or quarantine. The requirement for schools to exclude individuals who have tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19 is a separate and distinct control measure from isolation and quarantine.”
NCDHHS states current law requires principals to report to the local health department anyone within a school they have reason to suspect has a reportable communicable disease, including COVID-19.
Once notified, the health director or designee is charged under law with investigating cases. Health officials have the authority to work with school officials regarding contact tracing and other control measures, according to the document.
The document further states the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NCDHHS “strongly recommend that schools adopt a mask policy requiring all children and staff to wear a mask indoors.”
The document continues that in order to require masks in schools, each school board must adopt a mask policy.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.