John Phillips, in a virtual meeting with Oconee County Democrats last week, said Oconee County Schools has not done enough to keep parents and the community informed about COVID-19 cases in its schools.
To get a sense of what should be done, Phillips told the audience members, all they need do is look at Barrow County.
“I just Googled Barrow County school COVID,” he said, holding up his mobile phone to demonstrate. “And it pops up right here. And look at this. They have a chart here where they list cases by school, by date, broken out by student and staff.”
Oconee County School is only providing the number of active cases across the whole system at the end of the week, and it started doing that only after Phillips and other parents distributed detailed reports from documents they had obtained through open records requests.
Phillips said of the report the Oconee County Schools is releasing: “At best, it’s misleading. And at worst it’s deceitful.”
Phillips, who has two children in Oconee County Schools, was speaking on Thursday evening.
On Friday, neighboring Clarke County School District launched a new COVID-19 Case Reporting Dashboard that also is reporting detailed data on the disease in the system’s schools.
Phillips was the primary speaker at the virtual meeting on Aug. 19, and I was asked to add comments following him on covering the schools and COVID-19 and on the work Phillips and other parents were doing.
“All of us are paying for these schools and all of us have a vested interest in their doing things such as communicating to the community about everything, including COVID,” I said.
Elaborating on a comment made by Phillips, I said 71 percent of the property taxes that Oconee County land owners pay goes to the schools.
The remaining 29 percent goes to county services such as roads, public safety including the Sheriff’s Office, and a whole range of government services.
Based on figures given me by Oconee County Schools last year, I said, only 37 percent of the households in the county have children in Oconee County Schools.
Oconee County Schools directs much of its communication at parents, I said, making it hard for people without children in the schools to know what is happening there.
In response to a question, I acknowledged the 37 percent figure may under-represent households linked to the schools because many others have grandchildren in Oconee County Schools.
I applauded the work of Phillips and the other parents in distributing information about COVID-19 in the schools and said such citizen involvement in gathering and distributing information is crucial to the community.
Safety First Facebook Group
Phillips, a sociologist who has a private consulting firm, is a member of the Safety First Facebook group of parents.
Phillips and others in that group have filed repeated open records requests with Oconee County Schools to obtain information on the number of reported cases in each of the system’s 11 schools.
It has produced reports on its Facebook page updated every time new data are released to it by Oconee County Schools.
The group also has an advertisement in Thursday edition of The Oconee Enterprise reporting on the data it had gathered early in the school year.
Phillips also has made all of the data obtained by the parents available to me, and I have independently analyzed and reported on those data.
Phillips On School Policy Last Year
“I’m one of many parents that are energized and working on holding our schools accountable,” Phillips said at the beginning of his presentation. “So I want to give credit to all of those folks. I’m a relative newcomer to this, so there’s been a lot of people working on this for a long time.”
Phillips then compared the policies of Oconee County Schools last year and this.
Last year “masks were strongly encouraged and they were mandated or required on buses,” Phillips said. “There was a weekly status report that came out every Friday that talked about the number of active cases across the school district.
“The school was doing contract tracings,” he continued. “So if your child was a close contact with a positive case, you would get a phone call from the school.
“And then the school was managing the quarantines,” he said. “So they were providing guidance and, in some cases, direction on when to quarantine and for how long.”
Delta Variant And Vaccines
“This year, things are different,” he said. “We have the Delta variant, which is two to three times more infectious than the previous strain that we had last year.
|Phillips: COVID-19 Does Not Spread Evenly|
“They are talking about an infection rate of between six to eight. So one person could potentially affect six to eight other people,” he said.
“We have vaccines,” he continued. “But everyone under 12 years old cannot get vaccinated.
"And the statistics for 12 to 17 year olds, the vaccination rate nationwide is pretty low, about 30 percent,” he added.
Phillips On School Policy This Year
“So with that, what did the school district plan for this year?” Phillips asked.
“So masks are simply allowed. Even on the buses,” he said.
“There is no contract tracing being done by the schools,” he said. “They have handed that off to the Department of Public Health (DPH).”
Phillips added that “There is no quarantining being handled by the school. They have also handed that off to the Department of Public Health.
And at the beginning of the school year there was no weekly reporting.
“Simply an email would be sent out if your child was in a classroom where there was a positive case,” Phillips said. “So that’s how we started school on Aug. 4th.”
In response to a question after he finished his opening comments, Phillips added that there was a distance education option for all grades last year, and no such option is offered by Oconee County Schools this year.
Confusion At Start Of Year
“So right away, these emails just started flowing,” Phillips said.
“They created a great deal of confusion, because you would get an email that said your student was in a classroom with a positive case, but if you have a middle schooler or a high schooler, that can be up to six classes,” he said.
“It could also be on the bus,” he continued. “It could also be in the cafeteria. It could be in some extra curricular activity, and you don’t know.”
Phillips said “parents were trying to compare class schedules and sleuth it out to try to figure out what is their level of personal risk. We really had no idea whatsoever, so there was really a lot of confusion about that.”
By Friday of that first week, Aug. 6, “we realized that they were not going to put out even that weekly status report of how much COVID was in our school district,” Phillips said.
“So by Friday night we see this flurry of emails,” he said, “but yet we have no idea whatsoever of how much COVID is in our schools right now.”
On Monday morning (Aug. 9), the group filed its first open records request.
Findings From First Release Of Records
Oconee County Schools responded to the open records request on Thursday (Aug. 12).
“We were shocked to find out that we had 40 active cases in just six and a half school days,” Phillips said.
“We pushed that information out through the Safety First Facebook, and I shared that information with Lee,” he said.
“By Friday afternoon the school district decided, ok, we will put out that weekly case count,” Phillips said.
That first report listed 48 active cases of COVID-19 in the schools at that date.
The group filed another open records on the following Monday, Aug. 16.
Phillips On Findings
Phillips updated those at the virtual Democratic Party meeting on the findings available to him at the time of the meeting.
“Yesterday we received a case count through Monday (May 16) at 11 a.m. and had 66 cases,” he said.
In December of 2020, the system recorded 56 cases, he said, and in January of 2021 it had 104 cases. The February figure was 54 cases.
“So in eight and a half days we’ve already surpassed the second and third highest months of last year, and we are quickly approaching the January 2021 figure.”
“Last year it took us until Oct. 25 to get to 66 cases,” he said. “That’s two and a half months. About 55 school days versus the eight and a half we’re dealing with.
“So last year we were averaging about 1.2 cases per day,” he said. “And so far we’re averaging 7.8 cases a day in our schools.”
“Very few people, if any, have reported a phone call from DPH, so we don’t know if DPH is really following through on the contact tracing,” Phillips said. “Nor do we know if they are following through on the quarantining.
“So parents are just doing their best and using their best judgment,” he said.
Computation of Rates
Phillips said it “sounds good” that Oconee County Schools is now releasing its report on Fridays.
|Phillips With Map Of Cases|
“But I would say at best its misleading. And at worst its deceitful,” he said.
“What they are showing is they’re taking the number of active cases, and they’re dividing it by all staff and all students in the entire district,” Phillips said. “And they are calculating a percentage, which for last Friday was 0.5 percent.”
“That presumes that COVID is like this fine dust that settles evenly over everybody,” Phillips said. “So that 0.5 percent is the risk that everybody assumes.
“But we know COVID doesn’t do that,” he said. “COVID works in clusters.
“And so the risk of a superintendent sitting in his office with his door closed is much, much less that the risk of an unvaccinated fourth grader sitting in a crowded classroom or on a bus or in a cafeteria.”
Phillips said his group is sharing the data at the school and classroom level.
“That’s just the kind of information we’re trying to share with the public, with parents,” he said, “so that they can assess their personal level of risk and then decide what they want to do with that.
“You know, that’s not a big ask of the school district to do that,” he added.
Phillips then pulled out his phone and searched for Barrow County Schools and reviewed what the system is reporting.
“So Barrow County is not this liberal bastion of people,” he said. “They’re just doing the right thing. And so this is a question I can’t answer: Why can’t our school do that? What’s so hard about that?”
The Clark County School District launched its COVID-19 dashboard with detailed data the day after Phillips spoke.
After Phillips and I spoke, the Oconee County Democrats elected Rev. Joseph Nunnally to its executive committee.
It also debated a statement regarding the decision by the Judicial Council of Georgia not to support changes in the boundaries of the Western Judicial Circuit made up of Oconee and Clarke counties.
Marcus Wiedower and Houston Gaines, Republican legislators representing Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives, had requested a review by the Judicial Council of the boundaries of the Circuit.
The two were responding to unhappiness among some Oconee County Republicans with the election of Democrat Deborah Gonzalez as District Attorney last November.
“The truth is that our DA was elected in a free and fair election and has done a fantastic job so far considering the unprecedented challenges of the past year,” the statement before the Oconee County Democrats read.
“The attacks on the DA’s office are unfunded and unhelpful to the community,” the statement continued.
The group adopted it without any opposition.
I recorded the video below from Zoom.
I had pinned the image for Phillips when he was speaking and forgot to change it when I began to speak because on my own computer I was visible.
The video recorded shows Phillips while I was speaking.
I apologize for that error.
Phillips begins speaking at 17:37 in the video.
My comments begin at 34:50 in the video.
The election of Rev. Nunnally followed a discussion beginning at 1:21:10 in the video.
Discussion of the statement on the Judicial Council decision is at 1:24:40 in the video.
I cannot attend in-person meetings for health reasons.
The Republican Party meetings are not live streamed, and I am prohibited by the Republican Party executive committee from having someone record them for me.
This is Michael Prohcaksa, editor of The Oconee Enterprise
I appreciate the Democratic Party allowing me to select the second paragraph for publication, rather than use both paragraphs. I explained to party leaders that as an editor, I need to consider brevity and word count and the flow of the story.
That said, in the spirit of transparency, the Republican Party also sent me a quote about Marcus and Houston and I did not publish their paragraph on the two House reps either.
I also agree with Lee's assessment about the role of the journalist.
I want to push back on the comment that the "OE is 100 percent Republican."
The OE as an institution is neither a Republican newspaper nor a Democratic paper. It would be inappropriate to comment on the political leanings of individual staff members, but in full transparency, I consider myself a moderate Democrat who has voted Republican for certain candidates. But per my job, I also believe in fairness and do not discriminate based on party affiliation.
A number of people in the community believe that the OE is anti-Republican because of its numerous stories on former Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith and for its stories about the firing of Police Chief Lee O'Dillon. That is not true. Those stories are about holding an elected official accountable. There are others who believe the OE leans left because of Melissa's columns and the Young Scholar columns. For awhile, the OE was publishing a parenting column from a left-leaning thinker, but she has since moved out of the county so we phased that column out. All columns have a disclaimer that the opinions expressed are those of the writer, not the OE as an institution.
On the other side, the publication of an occasional editorial critical of the Democratic Party, the publication of Greg Morin's columns, the publication of right-leaning letters and the OE's editorial stance that the school system is making the right choice by allowing families the right to choose masks have led some people to believe that the OE is anti-Democrat. This is also not true.
The OE has been provided the GOP's press releases. We do not run them in full unless we have something similar from the Democratic Party to publish. The leaders of the Democratic Party can confirm that I do reach out to them when the GOP gives me something.
We do not cover meetings of either party, because we have a limited number of reporters and time. We feel that if we were to cover GOP meetings, we would need to cover Democratic meetings too. Because of time and personnel restraints, we cover neither.
Lee Becker does a wonderful job covering the meetings of both parties (Although now, the GOP does not let him record). I wish the GOP would let him back in. He provides a great community service.
Lastly, I will publish letters to the editor from both sides. Some weeks, space is an issue and I have to postpone letters. In full transparency, I was prepared to publish a letter from Pat Priest this week, but obituaries filled the space. I am publishing her letter next week.
Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise with a few more thoughts:
I understand there has been some concern from the left about the OE publishing a column during the legislative session from Marcus and Houston. I want to explain that we will provide the same opportunity if a Democratic or two Democrats are in those seats. We did not have those columns prior to them taking office, because Marcus and Houston came up with the idea and we agreed to it. It became a new feature. However, we do not publish their columns in years that they are contested. The OE also has a history of allowing elected officials a platform. BOC chairmen and superintendents have had the same privilege in the past. We agreed to publish Marcus and Houston's columns in the spirit of this tradition and also because many other weekly newspapers do the same.
Furthermore, the OE does not endorse candidates. The OE is neither a Republican institution or a Democratic institution.
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