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Charters call health director’s actions ‘inappropriate’ after requesting student records amid Covid outbreak

Mask-wearing in the classroom prevents state quarantine requirements from kicking in, as many districts and schools have opted for requiring face-coverings to keep student attendance steady. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NHCS)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY –– After deputies served “control measure orders” at two charter schools in Brunswick County, the schools’ leadership penned a letter to the board of commissioners this week to alert them of “inappropriate and ​​precipitous” actions taken by the county health director. 

Last month county health director Cris Harrelson authorized two health orders to force Charter Day School in Leland and Classical Charter Schools of Southport into compliance with state Covid-19 requirements they were flouting, threatening two years of imprisonment. 

At the time, the Leland campus had the highest Covid-19 cluster statewide, with 55 active cases as of the Aug. 6 order.

RELATED: Deputies served Brunswick charter schools to force quarantine compliance after 75 cases

The health director’s control measure orders were somewhat unusual: No other school in the county had been issued a similar directive in the pandemic, and surrounding counties (Pender and New Hanover) haven’t utilized the mechanism. 

But the seriousness of the schools’ outbreak, and the schools’ reluctance to respond to emails and phone calls requesting compliance, warranted the drastic measure, according to Harrelson.  

Recently, Harrelson requested identifiable attendance records of 1,500 students from the schools after they shared an anonymized version. Again, the move was necessitated by the seriousness of the matter, according to Harrelson. Though they’ve submitted anonymized versions, the schools have yet to disclose the identifiable details, citing legal concerns pertaining to their obligation to abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“No notice of compliance has been received, and we still have the threat of criminal action calling for imprisonment on the table,” the leaders wrote in the Aug. 30 letter, signed by Classical Charter Schools chairman Bob Spencer, Southport headmaster Kaitlin Warren, Leland headmaster Laurie Benton, The Roger Bacon Academy founder Baker Mitchell, and Mark Dudeck, CFO of The Roger Bacon Academy.

Their own policy 

On July 30, all four Roger Bacon Academy schools implemented their own quarantine policy: Asymptomatic students potentially exposed to Covid-19 could return to school so long as they wore a mask. The day prior, the schools also stopped providing close contact information to the health department, presenting a “grave concern,” the orders state, thwarting the health department’s ability to conduct contact tracing.

Under the old and new state guidelines, quarantine is required for exposed students. So in effect, the schools’ policy was a workaround to avoid climbing quarantine numbers that disrupt school operations but instead may have triggered the Covid-19 cluster.

“This new guidance did not meet any minimum standard we have been able to locate and certainly failed to address the continuing spread of active cases at the schools,” according to Harrelson.

The year-round schools were mask-free, with the new policy creating a circumstance where some exposed students would return to school masked while others were unmasked. 

According to school leaders, the schools’ management practices necessitated all campuses be treated the same, located across three and serving students from six counties.

Nine days earlier, Governor Roy Cooper announced he was letting an executive order expire on July 31, which required masks in the classroom. As charter schools, both Brunswick campuses don’t have to answer to the county school board but must follow state-level requirements. 

In Cooper’s announcement, he asked local districts to adopt face-covering requirements but acknowledged the decisions could be determined locally. The unveiling of the updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit included revised quarantine requirements, though these new rules weren’t explicitly detailed in the press conference. 

“All staff members believed we were acting in compliance,” the leaders wrote. They understood the updates to be suggestions rather than requirements, leading to the conflict. 

The quarantine policy was “based on the government’s premises that, first, a mask can prevent a possibly infected wearer from spreading the virus and infecting others, and second that symptom-free individuals are unlikely to spread the virus even without a mask,” they explained. 

The health director alerted the schools in writing beginning July 30, informing them of proper quarantine requirements. In an Aug. 2 email, Harrelson stated the schools’ new policy was “in conflict” with the toolkit and CDC guidance and cited his statutory authority to issue control measure orders. 

“Mr. Harrelson’s emails were considered as being more of a recommendation in keeping with the Governor’s recommendations, but we nevertheless re-examined our policy,” the school leaders wrote. “We still believed that our protocol was in the spirit of a reasonable undertaking and did not think a reply was necessary,” that is, until deputies showed up on campus to serve the health orders. 

School leaders are appalled by what they see as a punitive response, sealed by criminalizing their noncompliance. Harrelson said deputies serving orders and civil papers is common. 

“There was no intention of the health department to insinuate criminal actions by the school,” he wrote. “Given the lack of communications at that time, the deputies were used in order to ensure service and obtain the attached return of services for the different individuals.”

The inclusion of warnings of imprisonment under the state statute ​​is common practice and found in state health department templates, he said. 

The issues

The leaders take issue with both the lack of warning and Harrelson’s action, taken without consulting commissioners or the health board. 

Harrelson said emails and phone calls ahead of the orders were referred to Mitchell, who didn’t respond, as cases continued to accumulate. “I was disappointed to hear that you purposefully disregarded my message requesting to speak prior to the issuance of my order,” Harrelson later wrote in an Aug. 12 email to the founder. 

“While this particular set of control measures may be slightly unusual, issuing control measures is part of the day-to-day business of the health department,” he wrote in a statement to Port City Daily.

Harrelson said he wouldn’t need the commissioners’ or health board’s approval in issuing the orders, as investigating communicable diseases and issuing control orders is his role and duty per state law; consulting with them on such a move could lead to unnecessary delay in a timely matter and the perception of impropriety in health-related decisions, he explained. 

“I have full confidence and support for our county health director and health department,” Brunswick County chairman Randy Thompson wrote in an email, adding that it’s unnecessary for the health director to consult either board on the orders.

“We are in very challenging times, dealing with very challenging situations impacting our county.  We must remain focused on two important issues in the matter, public health and our school students. I feel both parties have the best interest at heart with both and are leading and managing at a time that conditions and communications is extremely important,” Thompson wrote.

School leaders also contest Harrelson’s case count, totaling 70 at Charter Day School as of Aug. 11, as reported to media. Mutually maintained records show the number of active cases on that date at 32, the leaders reported, defined as a case testing positive within the last 10 days; Harrelson had described 55 active cases at the school in the Aug. 6 order. 

“This discrepancy puts the accuracy of cluster data reported weekly by his department to the state in question,” the leaders wrote. In turn, Harrelson explained local health departments report the cumulative total of cases to the state and media when clusters occur in a school.

As of the latest state school and childcare cluster report, Charter Day School has the second-highest cumulative total case count statewide, with 87 as of Aug. 31.

After receiving the orders, the schools moved to align themselves with the listed demands, including placing signage throughout campus, resume reporting close contact information to the health department, changing its quarantine policy, cleaning surfaces daily, and more. 

Requests not included in the orders

The parties had a meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 11 to review the orders. At the meeting, Harrelson informed Mitchell the school was in full compliance, pending verification of signage at the Leland campus, according to the letter. 

County employees had made disparaging remarks about the schools during contract-tracing efforts, the letter states; Harrelson informed Mitchell they were using scripts. Also, Harrelson shared no children had been hospitalized or had died in Brunswick County due to the virus, the letter states.

Instead of receiving the green light as anticipated that Wednesday evening, the schools received a new list of demands Thursday after 7 p.m., including a host of requirements that weren’t included in the original orders, due Friday, Aug. 13, at 5 p.m. 

Harrelson sought school memos, teacher Covid-19 training Powerpoints, isolation logs, various documents, and notably, daily attendance records for 1,500 students for the week of Aug. 9 and Aug. 13. 

The health director told Port City Daily “it was necessary to identify the students by name in order to verify that quarantined students were not returning to school prior to the end of their quarantine period.” Quarantine is designed to align with the incubation period of the virus that causes Covid-19 and can spread to close contacts if exposed. 

“Health departments and schools share information regarding positive cases, exposures, and the exclusion of students who are positive or quarantined on a routine basis in the interest of public health,” he wrote in a statement.

With just nine minutes to spare before Harrelson’s deadline, “after over 50 hours” of efforts by multiple staff members “still working under threat of imprisonment,” the schools complied. However, they redacted student names from the attendance records, citing legal confidentiality concerns. 

The following week, Harrelson told the Leland headmaster the school was still non-compliant and asked for the unredacted records –– a request Mitchell said he hasn’t and likely won’t oblige. In the meantime, the orders still stand. 

“If an appointed county health director truly has the authority to legally bring criminal charges

without due notice against staff members of such an organization for their merely following the

Governor’s statements and that this health director does not believe he should inform his elected superiors of such a unique once-in-a-lifetime order and before informing the press, then we believe this authority should be bestowed on someone other than the current director,” Mitchell said at the conclusion of his letter. 

Harrelson asserted he had an obligation to act.

“To summarize, I had the authority and duty to issue control orders to the schools,” Harrelson concluded. “The schools had a developing outbreak of active covid cases, had stopped providing contact information to the health department, and had created their own inadequate quarantine rules.”

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