Friday, March 19, 2021

Data Show Faculty And Staff At Oconee County Schools Have High COVID-19 Rates, Point To Great Variability Among Schools

***Data Released By Schools Illuminate Weekly Reports***

Just less than a third of the positive tests for COVID-19 in Oconee County Schools since administrators began recording those data in early September through the first of this month have been for faculty and staff.

Faculty and staff made up more than half of the positive tests reported at the system’s six elementary schools and single primary school, about a quarter of the cases at the two middle schools, and nearly one in five of the cases at the two high schools.

When staff, faculty, and student cases are combined, 32.0 percent of all of the positive tests at the schools going back to Aug. 15 have been at the six elementary schools and the single primary school, 27.8 percent have been at the two middle schools, and 40.2 percent have been at the two high schools.

These analysis are based on data released to a parent of students in Oconee County Schools who filed an open records request for the information.

Oconee County Schools only provides numbers of Active Cases and Active Quarantines in its Weekly Status Report released each Friday and does not characterize the individuals who test positive each week or identify the schools where the positive tests are recorded.

The data released to the parent are limited, but they do list cases by school and differentiate between students and others who tested positive at the schools.

As such, they provide more detail about how COVID-19 has been present in the schools this year than has been available in the past and speak to concerns that parents have raised before the Board of Education about student, faculty and staff welfare.

March 8 School Board Meeting

Many of the comments made by parents to the Board of Education since the school year began have been about the policy of promoting but not requiring the wearing of masks.

Some have favored the policy, and some have opposed.

Michaela Hobbs At School Board 3/8/2021

At the March 8 Board meeting, Michaela Hobbs and her daughter, Leila Hobbs, a junior at Oconee County High Schools, gave impassioned pleas to the Board to require masks.

“By not mandating a mask, you do not care about the health and safety of the students, teachers and staff who devote their lives to this District,” Leila Hobbs said

“Every day when I walk in, I hope and pray that more students will be wearing masks, and every day I am disappointed,” she said.

“I have witnessed my own teachers break down and cry in front of my classes, begging students to put on masks, and these students still refuse,” she added

“What our children have learned this year is that our teachers can beg them over and over and over again to wear a mask for the safety of others and they can refuse because this administration will do nothing,” Michaela Hobbs said.

“This has been a hard year for everyone in this county, but the true heroes here are the teachers, staff and students who have bravely stepped up to lead when Dr. Branch would not,” Michaela Hobbs continued, referring to Oconee County School Superintendent Jason Branch.

The Board of Education has taken a passive stance on the mask policy, deferring to Superintendent Branch and his staff, who promulgated it.

Board Member Wayne Bagley, who ended his term on the Board in December, even refused to wear a mask during the bulk of Board meetings.

Key Findings From Released Data

The data released by Oconee Schools to John Phillips, a parent of two students in Oconee County Schools, give a sense of how COVID-19 has affected teachers and staff.

Roughly speaking, while between 13 and 14 percent of the those in the schools are faculty and staff, 30 percent of the COVID-19 cases are faculty and staff.

Student cases are concentrated at the high school level (50.1 percent), while faculty and staff cases are concentrated at the K-5 level (57.3 percent).

The data also show that Dove Creek Elementary School stands out with high case loads at the lower grade level, and Malcom Bridge Middle School has had considerably higher case loads than Oconee County Middle School.

Oconee County High School had a greater percentage of the cases than the larger North Oconee High School in the first half of the academic year, but North Oconee High School has had a larger percentage of the cases in the second half of the year.

In recent weeks, positive cases at North Oconee High School have been pronounced.

Details Of Data Release

Phillips filed his open records request with Brook Whitmire, Open Records officer and Chief Human Resources officer for Oconee County Schools, on March 2.

Phillips asked for the “total number of OCS COVID cases (all reported cases, including those that occurred on campuses and those off campus); the total number of OCS COVID isolations and quarantines; the total number of OCS COVID related hospitalizations; and the total number of OCS COVID related deaths.”

On March 5, Whitmire responded via email and said “Attached please find the only record in the school district’s possession that might be responsive to your open records request. The document is redacted to remove any information that might lead to the discovery of any individual student or staff member.”

State law does not require the government agency to create any new document in response to an open records request.

Whitmire sent the document as a PDF file and then as an Excel file, and Phillips forwarded these to me.

Phillips also provided me with analysis he had done of the materials provided by Whitmire as well as copies of his correspondence with Whitmire. Phillips, who is a sociologist, has posted many of his analysis of the data to the Safety First--Reopening Schools group on Facebook.

The first entry in the file given to Phillips was on Aug. 15 for a date of positive testing of Aug. 13. Classes has begun on Aug. 6.

The last entry was on March 3.

Questions About Files

The data file Phillips sent to me contains some obvious errors and recording oddities.

Two entries with a Timestamp of 3/2/2021 had a Date Of Positive Result of 3/26/2021, that is, a date still in the future.

The entry with a Timestamp of 3/3/2021 had Students Quarantined as “4 (plus sibling),” making it seem likely that the actual count should have been five. Text notes were commonly entered in columns on the spreadsheet for numeric data.

Most entries were both blacked out and stricken through, suggesting that the cases not blacked out and stricken through were still active.

On March 7, I sent Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, an email asking her about these issues.

I also told her I could not reconcile the numbers from the cases not blacked out and stricken through with the Weekly Status Report from the schools on March 5, perhaps because I did not have data for March 4 and 5. I asked her for those data.

I also pointed out that the data file from Phillips contained 306 entries, but the total number of “Active Cases” summed across each of the Weekly Status Reports for the schools was 349.

I also asked Jimenez to clarify how “Active Cases” were defined and what changes had taken place during the year as new guidelines were announced.

Explanations Of Data File

Jimenez emailed me on March 9 and confirmed that the “Blacked-out areas are no longer active.”

She also wrote that the discrepancy between the data released to Phillips and the Weekly Status Report were because “There are times when we become aware of cases via principal communication that we include in the weekly status report--before individuals have had an opportunity to key the data into a spreadsheet.

“We are committed to sharing the most accurate possible data each Friday at 4 p.m.,” she wrote.

“If you add up our weekly status report numbers, it will be higher than raw numbers because the weekly status reports include all active cases, which could span two Fridays,” she said.

“We adjust quarantine numbers as needed based on the most recent CDC guidance,” she continued.

Follow-Up Telephone Conversation

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Jimenez called the spreadsheet Whitmire forwarded to Phillips an “internal” document used to create the Weekly Status Report and “not the official record.”

For that reason, she said, she would not answer my questions about dates and ambiguities in the entries.

She said the Weekly Status Report, which contains only the number of Active Cases and Active Quarantines, was the official record for the schools.

I also asked Jimenez for the official in-person enrollment figures for Oconee County Schools broken down by school.

She sent me that report on March 12.

In an email message that Whitmire sent to Phillips on March 10, and which Phillips forwarded to me, Whitmire said that “The district follows applicable Georgia Department of Health guidance to determine when each coronavirus-related case becomes inactive.”

“(T)he document you have been provided is essentially an ongoing tracking of cases used to prepare the district’s weekly report to state officials as well as Dr. Branch’s weekly update to the public,” Whitmire wrote.

Previously Reported Data

The Weekly Status Report released each Friday by Oconee County Schools contains a count of that week’s Active COVID-19 Cases and Active Quarantines Due To Close Contact.

Click To Enlarge

It does not include any additional information on the Active Cases or Active Quarantines.

Jimenez told me at the beginning of the school year that only the number of Active Cases and of persons in Active Quarantines will be released to the public.

Principals do send to parents of students in the schools an email message when someone in the school has tested positive, but the status of the person who tested positive is not identified.

Parents of students forward some of those email messages to me, and I use those I receive in my daily update on COVID-19 in the county and surrounding Northeast Health District.

To make use of the data file provided to me by Phillips, I redated the two cases in the data file for March 26 to Feb. 26, which is consistent with the dates surrounding them.

The file lists a Timestamp for the entry, the Date of Positive Result, School, #Students Quarantined, #Staff Quarantined, and, starting on Sept. 10, designates the entry as Staff or Student.

My analysis began with the first entry (Timestamp) in the file, on Aug. 15, and continues through the final entry on March 3.

I analyzed cases, not quarantines.

Staff Cases

Oconee County Schools has 1,046 full-time employees, according to the school web site. Of those, 644 are certified, such as teachers, counselors, librarians, and principals, and 402 are support staff.

Click To Enlarge

Jimenez told me in an email message on March 15 that “Staff” in the data file released to Phillips includes full and part-time staff members, contract workers, and student teachers.

Jimenez told me on Thursday that the Oconee County Schools has 123 part-time employees.

I used the 1,046 full-time staff plus the 123 part-time employees as the best possible estimate of faculty and staff presence in the schools.

As such, faculty and staff make up 14.1 percent of the population in the schools in the first quarter of the academic year and 13.1 percent in the current quarter, when more students have returned for in-person instruction.

Of the 129 cases prior to the start of this year, 46, or 35.7 percent, were for staff.

Of the 143 cases recorded so far this year, 36, or 25.2 percent were staff.

Overall 30.1 percent of the cases are staff.

Forty-seven of the staff cases are at elementary schools and the primary school (57.3 percent), 17 are at the middle schools (20.7 percent), and 18 of the cases at the high schools (22.0 percent).

The data file contained 10 more staff cases in the first half of the academic year than in the second half, which is not complete. (Cases also were not differentiated by staff or student until Sept. 10.)

Student Cases

In-person student enrollments have varied across the four quarters of the year, as more students have rejoined in-person classes.

At the beginning of the academic year, 1,106 students were using the Distance Learning option, and that number dropped to 555 for the fourth quarter.

In-person enrollment at the system’s 11 school was 7,107 in the first quarter of the year, 7,393 in the second, 7,666 in the third, and 7,754 in the current fourth quarter.

The average across those four quarters is that 44.3 percent of the students are at the primary and elementary level (K-5), 23.3 percent are at the middle school level (6-8), and 32.4 percent are at the high school level (9-12).

Of the 190 student cases, 20.0 percent are at the K-5 level, 28.9 percent are at the middle school level, and 51.1 percent are at the high schools.

So student cases are disproportionately concentrated at the high school level (51.1 percent of cases vs. 32.4 percent of enrolled students) and the middle school level (28.9 percent of the cases and 23.3 percent of the enrolled students).

Conversely, the K-5 students make up 20.0 percent of the cases but 44.3 percent of the enrolled students.

The number of student cases increased by 24 from the first half of the year to the second.

Combined Cases

Overall, 32.0 percent of the total 306 cases (staff and students) from the beginning of the school year until the beginning of March have been at the six elementary schools and the single primary school.

Oconee County Primary School is for grades K-2. Oconee County Elementary School is for grades 3-5. The other elementary schools are K-5.

The two middle schools contributed 27.8 percent of the combined cases, and the two high schools contributed 40.2 percent of the cases.

As stated, in-person enrollments varied across the four quarters, and the average was 44.3 percent of the students enrolled at the elementary schools, 23.3 percent at the middle schools, and 32.4 percent at the high schools.

So combined cases, reflecting the student dominance in cases, are disproportionately concentrated at the high school level (40.2 percent of cases vs. 32.4 percent of enrollment) and middle school level (27.8 percent of cases vs. 23.3 percent of enrollment).

Combined cases make up 32.0 percent of the cases at the K-5 level, where 44.3 percent of the students are enrolled.

Variability K-5

Quite a bit of variability exists within the school categories.

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Dove Creek Elementary School (DCES) stands out as having the largest number of cases even in comparison with Colham Ferry Elementary School (CFES), High Shoals Elementary School (HSES), and Rocky Branch Elementary School (RBES) which have roughly similar numbers of students enrolled.

Malcom Bridge Elementary School (MBES) and Oconee County Elementary School (OCES) do have slightly lower enrollments and cases,

Oconee County Primary School (OCPS) stands out because of the variability of cases from the first half of the year to the second. It accounted for 1.8 percent of the cases in the first half of the year and 8.4 percent in the second.

Variability Middle Schools

Malcom Bridge Middle School (MBES) stands out in comparison with Oconee County Middle School (OCMS) in two ways: consistency and number of cases.

Malcom Bridge Middle School contributed 18.4 percent of the cases in the first half of the year and 18.9 percent in the second half.

By contrast, Oconee County Middle School contributed 12.9 percent of the cases in the first half of the year and only 4.9 percent so far this year.

Malcom Bridge Middle School does have more students than Oconee County Middle School: 950 in the current quarter at Malcom Bridge vs. 860 at Oconee County Middle School. Designated student capacity for both schools is 1,000.

Malcom Bridge Middle School averaged 903.5 enrolled students in the first two quarters of the year and 943 the second, while Oconee County Middle School averaged 786 students in the first half of the year and 856 in the second.

A total case rate (student and staff cases per student population) for Malcom Bridge Middle School in the first two quarters was .033. The rate was .029 in the second two quarters.

The same case rate for Oconee County Middle School was .027 in the first two quarters and .008 in the second.

High Schools Compared

Overall, each of the system’s two high school accounted for about 20 percent of the COVID-19 positive tests.

Oconee County High School’s share dropped greatly from the first half of the year (26.4 percent) to the second (14.0 percent), while North Oconee High School’s share increased (from 14.1 percent to 25.9 percent).

North Oconee High School (NOHS) has more students than Oconee County High School (OCHS). In the current quarter, North Oconee High School has 1,362 enrolled students, while Oconee County High School has 1,075.

North Oconee High School averaged 1,363 enrolled students in the first two quarters of the year and 1,365 in the second, while Oconee County High School averaged 1,041 students in the first half of the year and 1,073 in the second.

A total case rate (student and staff cases per student population) for North Oconee High School in the first two quarters was .017. The rate was .027 in the second two quarters.

The same case rate for Oconee County High School was .041 in the first two quarters and .019 in the second.

The case rates largely reflect what is in the chart above, showing North Oconee High School and Oconee County High School switching places as the year progressed.

The recent email messages sent to parents from Principal Philip Brown at North Oconee High School suggest that trend has continued and that North Oconee High School is the hot spot in the system at present.


The video below is of the March 8 meeting of the Oconee County Board of Education.

Leila Hobbs began speaking at 30:40 in the video.

Michaela Hobbs began speaking at 34:59 in the video.

Michaela Hobbs referred to Superintendent Branch by name twice. The first time, Board Chair Tom Odom objected and told her to simply say “administration,” but she refused.

She also asked that she be given her full five minutes of speaking time to offset Odom’s interruption.

Brook Jefts followed Michaeli Hobbs and spoke about her concerns with the Milestones/End of Course Tests. She began speaking at 40:30 in the video.

Julia Fechter, reporter for The Oconee Enterprise, recorded the video using my camera and tripod so an independent recording of the meeting is available to the public.


Unknown said...

If I am reading this correctly, there have been 306 positive tests all year out of 8,000 plus people? How does that compare to the county as a whole?
Joe Stephens

Lee Becker said...


Thank you for the question.

The number of school cases in the August to March period was 306, as you said.

I divided that number by my best estimate of the number of people to whom it applied, based on Jimenez’ description of what was covered by “staff” in the spreadsheet.

So that figure ranged from 8,276 at the start of the year to 8,923 at present.

So, the ratio, using the largest figure, is 306/8,923, or .034.

As of 3/19/2021, the county had 2,907 confirmed molecular cases. The Department of Public Health uses a population estimate for the county of 41,737 (which is higher than the Census estimate). So the case rate is .070.

In addition, the DPH reports antigen test cases, which it does not treat as “confirmed.” On 3/19/2021, Oconee County had 907 positive antigen tests. If those are summed with the positive molecular results, the total number of positive tests is 3,814. In theory, there is no overlap, that is, if a person is positive with more than one test, the persons is only counted as positive once. DPH does clean these data every day in an effort to convert tests to cases. I can see that in the records.

So, if this count of 3,814 is used, the case rate for the county is .09. But this is not the case rate that DPH uses. It uses the “confirmed” cases only in the rate it reports.

To further complicate things, my estimate of the base for the calculation of the school case rate (students plus staff), is larger than what OCS is using with its Weekly Status Report. The Report for 3/21/2021 lists that number as 8,794. My largest figure was 8,923. At the beginning of the year, the Weekly Status Report used a figure of 8,168, which is lower than my lowest base number of 8,276. I do not know what OCS is leaving out of its base.

So, if we divide 306 by the 8,794 figure, the rate is 0.35.

I suspect the cases in the schools are based on molecular tests, so I think the best answer to your question is that the school rate is about half of the county rate (.035 vs. .070. Given that most of those in the school system are young, a discrepancy should be expected.

How large it should be is way beyond my expertise.

I hope this helps.


Trey Downs said...

There is no evidence that mask wearing works. I feel sorry for the people who believe a mask will keep them from catching a virus. If masks worked, then we would wear them every flu season, but we don't. The USA feels more like 1930's Germany than a free country.

Trey Downs

Unknown said...

Thanks Lee. So there doesn’t appear to be any evidence in person school increases the spread at all, mask or no mask.

Joe Stephens

Lee Becker said...


There isn’t anything in these data that would allow one to say that a different mask policy would have made any difference. The data simply do not address that question.

Some parents have raised questions about the impact of the in-person instruction on faculty and staff and have focused on masks. The data show that faculty and staff play an outsized role in infections in the schools. It is not possible to say given the data available that this would have been any different with a different mask policy.

The faculty and staff could have brought those infections into the school from the outside community or could have become infected in school. The data that are available don’t provide any answer to that question.

The infection rate in the larger community (which includes students and at least some of the faculty and staff) is roughly twice that of the schools.

But these two groups are very different. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, 26.3 percent of the county’s population is under 18 years of age.

According to the figures being used by Oconee County Schools in its Weekly Status Report from Friday, the population to which it is generalizing consists of 8,794 persons. According to the data provided me by the schools, 7,754 of those are students. (Remember, the estimates I used are just slightly different from these and were intended to make more conservative estimates of the the estimate of staff cases on overall cases in the schools.)

If we assume that most of those 7,754 students have not reached the age of 18, the percentage of persons under 18 in the schools is 88.2 percent.

So any comparison between the overall community and the school population is problematic. Persons under 18 make up 26.3 percent of the former and somewhere near 88.2 percent of the latter.

Given that we also know that infection rates are much lower among younger people, it would be very unlikely that the overall community and the school populations would have anything like the same infection rates. I do not have the data needed to make adjustments for these differences.

Certainly cases from the schools have impact on the community rate of COVID-19. In recent weeks, as I reported on Friday, the data suggest the schools are a big contributor to the county’s current case rate.

I would expect that the rate of spread of the disease among the students would be lower if they were not meeting in-person, but there is nothing in the data that can speak definitively to that.

Again, I hope I have been responsive to your questions.


The Bike Jock said...

The fellow who claims masks do not work is simply wrong. The 2021 flu season was significantly milder in all likelihood due to mask wearing. This is well-documented. The following is from the CDC:

"Furthermore, there has been one pediatric fatality related to influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season. This good news compares with last flu season when the CDC confirmed 198 pediatric fatalities."

I suspect folks who deny deny don't believe anything scientists and data collectors report, but facts are facts. Of course, there are still plenty of 'flat earth' adherents who still don't believe the earth is a globe and not a pancake. Careful, or you'll sail right off the edge.

Thanks to widespread face covering the flu season just came and went unnoticed.

John Dewey
Almost Mainstreet
W'ville, GA