A high school student has collected more than 2,600 signatures for an online petition urging Union County Public Schools to resume contact tracing and institute a mask mandate to limit exposure to COVID-19.
Sydney, an 11th-grader, said the petition didn't get the response she wanted from the school board, so she hopes to appeal to Gov. Roy Cooper to enact a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools instead.
UCPS made national news following the school board's Sept. 13 decision to abandon contact tracing and quarantining people not infected with COVID-19. A soundbite from Sydney was included in a story featured in “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” on Sept. 14.
“The mall has a mask mandate, so I feel safer there than at school,” she said in the report. “It should be the other way around.”
Sydney took time to answer some questions from The Weekly about her petition and the current climate in schools.
Q: Why did you choose to start a petition?
A: I chose to start a petition because I knew that it was the only way I could show the school board and other officials that a mask mandate and contact tracing was necessary.
I first found out about the board’s decision when my second block teacher told the class, and I felt like school was going to become unsafe.
Going to school when students there potentially can spread COVID-19 is scary, and I wanted change as soon as possible so me and my friends could feel safe.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve spoken out about an issue?
A: This is actually the first time!
I felt like I needed to speak out now because no other school district I’ve heard of online stopped contact tracing and the quarantine of exposed students, and I strongly disliked that UCPS decided to be the first.
Q: Did you get a response from any school leaders about the petition?
A:I emailed the entirety of the school board on Tuesday, and the response I got was discouraging.
Most of the members who replied back said that schools aren’t allowed to contact trace under state law, and one went as far as to say the health director wouldn’t consider a mask mandate.
It made me upset because I read the letter the health director put out advising quarantines and masks, and I knew that some things weren’t lining up.
Q: After not getting the response you hoped from the school board, you’re trying to get Gov. Roy Cooper's attention. How did you get this idea?
A: As soon as I got the emails from the school board, I knew they’d never listen.
I then realized that last school year, the governor had an executive order requiring schools to have mask mandates. There were way less COVID cases last school year then now, and according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, students who were exposed to COVID don’t have to quarantine unless they develop symptoms if everyone is wearing a mask.
I then knew the answer to UCPS’s problem was for Gov. Cooper to step in and give K-12 public schools a mask mandate statewide.
Q: Have you received any backlash from the petition? If so, how do you deal with it?
A: When I was on “NBC Nightly News,” there were several nasty comments on YouTube, but that’s all of the backlash I know of. I deal with the backlash by distracting myself, watching my favorite TV shows, and thinking to myself that protecting my health is more important than some mean people on YouTube.
Q: What went through your head when you saw yourself on national news?
A: I was shocked when I was on national TV. I didn’t even know I was on until I was notified when an old friend emailed my mom about it, so when I watched it, my mind was blown. I couldn’t believe it.
Q: What has school been like for you this year? How often are you thinking of COVID or being safe?
A: I wear a mask every day to school and wear it all day unless I’m eating, and I try my best to social distance, but it’s hard to social distance in the hallways.
I think of COVID a lot during classes because I sit near classmates who were brought back to school due to the board’s new rule, and I wonder if I will ever be exposed to COVID.
I didn’t think of COVID much when contact tracing was ongoing, but now it’s on the top of my mind all the time, especially when half to three-quarters of all my classes don’t wear masks.