Fact-checking Union County lawmaker's claim about COVID, school criticism

State Rep. David Willis (R-Union County) said on Feb. 17 there were no students, staff or anyone "related to the school system" in Union County" hospitalized with COVID-19, despite harsh criticism of school COVID policy. PolitiFact NC checks his claim.

Posted Updated

Paul Specht
, PolitiFact reporter

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.

Willis’ comments

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 status of its students and employees. It doesn’t track COVID-19 infections among employees of the school system’s partners or contractors.

Previous criticism

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 if Willis was referencing a specific critic or if 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.”

Our ruling

Half-true on the PolitiFact meter

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 on 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.

Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.