Andrea Wellnitz is persistent.
“I’m coming before you today for the fourth time to bring my concerns to you,” Wellnitz said as she began her comments as a registered speaker to the Board of Education at its final meeting of last year.
Wellnitz said she had a number of concerns and had made a number of requests, including that the Board, Superintendent Jason Branch, or other administrators tell her what the “threshold” is for deciding to move from in-person instruction to hybrid instruction or full remote learning in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases.
“So far, none of you has responded to this request,” Wellnitz said.
Board Chair Tom Odom thanked Wellnitz for her comments at that meeting and immediately moved on to other business. No Board member objected.
On Jan. 1, Wellnitz tried once again to get a response from the Board.
She sent an email to the Board, to Branch, and to other school administrators, and she copied it to state officials in the Department of Public Health and the office of the state Superintendent of Schools, and the state Department of Education.
As of Monday, she says she has gotten no response,
Wellnitz is not alone in writing to school administrators and Board of Education members about their concerns with the start of classes on Tuesday and state data showing a rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases in the county, high positivity rates for tests, and strains at area hospitals.
The Board is scheduled to hold its work session at 6 p.m. today, but the Board only allows citizen input at regular meetings, with the next scheduled for Jan. 11.
At 10 a.m. on Monday, Oconee County Schools reopened the distance learning window until 10 a.m. on Friday to allow parents to modify the learning model selection for their children. Parents can select in-person or distance learning models.
Wellnitz was the only person who signed up to speak at the Board of Education meeting on Dec. 14.
|Wellnitz (Back to Camera) Addressing Board|
Odom On Screen, Bagley At Right, Foreground
As is the norm, she was given five minutes to talk near the end of the half-hour long meeting.
Wellnitz, who lives at 1651 Rambling Rill Drive, in the far northwest of the county, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Board in 2018 and has been active on social media since the school year began with remote learning and in-person options.
Wellnitz told the Board at that Dec. 14 meeting that she had asked repeatedly for information on when the school system would feel it necessary to discontinue its current dependence on in-person instruction.
“Silence from this Board seems to be a pattern,” she said.
Wellnitz also said her ninth-grade daughter had encountered problems with the remote learning option because she was unable to access any of the content in one of the instructional modules. Wellnitz said she has brought that to the attention of school administrators as well.
“This district is failing its students,” Wellnitz said.
Wellnitz also criticized the schools for not requiring students to wear masks.
“Given the current number of cases, why is our district not implementing the simple and effective science of requiring masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19?” she asked.
“Keeping our children safe should be your number one priority. Is this your number one priority? I don’t know,” Wellnitz said.
Structure Of Meeting
The Board of Education meets in a relatively small room in the superintendent’s office at the school office complex in Watkinsville.
Board members, Branch and other school administrators are spread around the room.
Board Member Wayne Bagley, whose last meeting was the one on Dec. 14, does not wear a mask for most of the meeting, but other Board members and administrators do.
The Board does not live stream meetings, but Board Chair Tom Odom is connected to the meeting via a video link from his home.
Odom told me he has an underlying health condition and does not attend on the advice of his doctor.
In Wellnitz’s Jan. 1 email to the Board and Superintendent Branch, she wrote “I am once again reaching out to you regarding my concerns as a parent, and a neighbor. I have signed up to talk before the Oconee County School Board four times over the past semester and so far, no one from this Board has responded to my concerns.
“I have talked with you about my concerns as a parent, talked with you about what my children were experiencing, talked with you about my concerns for our educators, and none of you have reached out,” she wrote.
“No one has checked in to see how my children are doing,” she continued. “No one has reached out to talk with me about what the district is doing. None of those who can set policy in this district have reached out to talk with me.
“As a Board, you have the power and ability to put more protections in place for our educators. You can provide safer working conditions and safer environments for our students,” Wellnitz wrote.”
“I hope that this Board has been informed of the numerous educators who spent this holiday break sick with COVID,” Wellnitz wrote.
“Yes, Oconee County Schools gave many of our educators the gift of COVID this year, not only to them, but also to extended members of their families,” Wellnitz said.
“As a community, we have not been provided with the details on when the district will pivot to hybrid or remote learning,” Wellnitz wrote. “Numerous people in this district have requested this information. Why has it not been provided? Is there a plan?
“This is something I have requested each and every time I have been before the board, and there has been no response. Only silence,” she wrote.
I have received copies of letters from others who identified themselves as parents of students in Oconee County schools.
Jennifer Samp wrote to Branch on Dec. 29 and copied her email to the School Board members saying that she is a parent of two students at Oconee County High School and that she, too, has not had her concerns addressed.
“The enforcement of masking is not readily applied, and has decreased markedly,” she wrote. “I understand that many citizens of OC think that the pandemic does not apply to them. And this message is being passed down to students.”
Kristina Wallace directed her email on Dec. 18 to state education and other governmental leaders, saying that compliance with the policy of recommending masks is poor and that “Many students and teachers feel their lives are at risk daily when they enter the building.
“The school system also refuses to state publicly any threshold it may have set for the number of cases it would take for schools to temporarily go virtual,” she wrote.
Emily Gertsch in a Dec. 18 letter directed at community leaders also called for a mask requirement.
Other Board Action
At the Dec. 14 meeting, the Board of Education passed a resolution officially calling for an election in March for continuation of the 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax and authorizing the Board to borrow up to $42,950,000 against revenue from that tax for school projects.
A third middle school at the site of the Dove Creek Elementary School is planned.
The current five-year ELOST expires on Dec. 31 of 2022, and the resolution passed by the Board asks that the new tax be put before voters on March 16 of 2021.
The maximum amount to be collected with the proposed tax is $48.5 million.
The current ELOST is capped at $45 million, and actual revenue is now projected to be only $39.9 million. To date, the Board was told at its meeting, $22.4 million has been collected just less than three years into the five-year tax
The Board of Education borrowed $25.9 million against revenue from the current ELOST and had made payments of $7.5 million against that amount, the Board was told at its Dec. 14 meeting.
The Board is to make another payment of $6.1 million against the bond debt in 2021 and has $8.8 million available in reserve.
The video below is of the Dec. 14, 2020, meeting of the Board of Education.
Julia Fechter, reporter for The Oconee Enterprise, recorded this video.
Fechter and I have agreed to work together to create a video record of meetings since the Board of Education has decided not to live stream or otherwise record them.
I cannot attend meetings because I am immunocompromised.
Wellnitz began speaking at 25:07 in the video.