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.
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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.
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.
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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.)
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.
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.
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.