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After record high, cases decline sharply

The number of active coronavirus cases in Nacogdoches County was at 266 Tuesday, falling for a second straight day, and down significantly from the nearly 450 active cases reported Friday.

Monday and Tuesday saw a total of 26 cases — seven Monday and 19 Tuesday — added to the tally, though the number of people who’ve overcome the novel coronavirus jumped significantly.

State officials recorded 836 recoveries on Tuesday, a climb of 38 from Monday’s total of 798. The number of deaths in which the virus played a role remained at 32 for the 15th day in a row. Cumulative confirmed cases since the virus was first detected here in March was at 1,334 Tuesday.

The mortality rate — the percentage of confirmed cases resulting in death — was at 2.8% Tuesday.

The slight uptick in cases corresponded with an enormous leap in tests administered by health officials. On Monday, the total number of coronavirus tests administered within Nacogdoches County climbed by 2,063, driven in part due to drive-up tests last week at the county expo center. A total of 8,524 tests had been administered locally as of Tuesday afternoon.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaking at a news conference Tuesday in Beaumont applauded the steps Texans have taken in recent weeks to combat the spread of the virus, and he reaffirmed the need for caution as public schools around the state prepare to reopen.

“The numbers are moving in the right direction,” he said, noting that, at least in the Southeast Texas region, hospitalizations are still too high. “The way to reduce hospitalizations is to reduce the number of people who test positive.”

Abbott encouraged residents to wear masks, practice social distancing and hygiene techniques and stay home as often as possible.

The state is prioritizing getting personal protective equipment to public school districts as the move toward reopening this month, Abbott said. School openings have been mired in controversy as images of crowded halls in some public schools have sparked outrage.

Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd said the state has been funneling masks, face shields, hand sanitizer and other safety goods around the state from 46 warehouses, which he said were “busting with” personal protective equipment.

Woden ISD is the first public school district to reopen in Nacogdoches County, and students will return to campus there on Thursday. Students also begin returning to Stephen F. Austin State University on Thursday for freshman orientation. Other public schools will follow suit throughout the month. Nacogdoches ISD has the latest start date with an Aug. 31 opening.

Statewide, there were 500,620 confirmed cases of the coronavirus Tuesday, with an estimated 133,598 active cases and 358,312 recoveries. An estimated 8,710 deaths are attributed to the virus.

Renovated transportation center almost ready

The first major project funded by a $77.9 million bond package approved by voters in 2018 will be open for business soon.

Nacogdoches ISD’s transportation center is nearing completion, and staff will soon begin moving into the new facility, district officials said.

“NISD is grateful for the Board of Trustees as well as the voters of NISD for overwhelming support in 2018 to provide the funds to complete the transportation center,” Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo said. “And let’s not forget the vision and mission of our former superintendent, Alton Frailey, who saw what this facility could be.”

Voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved the bond package after defeating similar proposals in 2014 and 2015.

Around $5 million was used to renovate the district’s transportation center. Much of the original building was retained, but it was reconfigured.

New areas were added on for transportation staff offices and a large meeting room for drivers, and garage area was expanded to accommodate six full-size buses at one time. The large roll-up doors at each end can be closed while the buses are inside, and the work area is now climate-controlled.

Under normal circumstances, NISD would celebrate the completion of this work with a ribbon cutting ceremony. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the celebration is put on hold, and district officials posted a video and photos on the NISD website to give the public a first look at the facility.

Work is continuing around the school district on other bond projects including adding 30,000 square feet of career and technology space at Nacogdoches High School and construction of a new Emeline Carpenter Elementary School on Southeast Stallings Drive.

New city manager starts job

Nacogdoches’ new city manager went to work Monday, ending a months-long saga to replace longtime leader Jim Jeffers.

Mario Canizares took his new leadership post in city hall after being named lone finalist for the position in early July. He was previously deputy city manager in Denton, a city of about 140,000 people, about 40 miles northeast of Fort Worth.

“As we look ahead, the challenges cities face will be enormous,” Canizares said in a statement when he was named lone finalist. “With high service delivery demands and minimal and declining resources we must rely on governments at the local level to change our way of thinking and work collaboratively to deliver services to the community. I believe my background and skill set prepares me to lead Nacogdoches into the future.”

He was meeting with city staff and community members Monday and Tuesday, city officials said during a conference call with the Nacogdoches Chamber of Commerce.

“We are very happy to announce that our new city manager joined us yesterday,” city spokeswoman Amy Mehaffey said. “I am looking forward to all the changes that are coming. It’s been a busy few days as we’ve been getting him on board.”

Members of the community will have a chance to meet Canizares on Aug. 27 at a breakfast event sponsored by the local chamber, said Wayne Mitchell, CEO of the Nacogdoches Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s going to be both virtual and a real program. We are tentatively planning to put it together at the Fredonia Hotel and Convention Center.”

The time for the event is still in the works, but Canizares’ address will be broadcast online.

“If you want an opportunity to meet him, make plans to join us either electronically or in person,” Mitchell said.

After Jeffers’ retirement in January, a nationwide search led by the search firm Strategic Government Solutions drew more than 50 applicants. After the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, a contracted interim city manager opted to return to his home in the Dallas area, and Chief of Police Jim Sevey was appointed as acting city manager.

Canizares is an SFA graduate and holds a masters of public administration from the University of North Texas in Denton. Before his role in Denton city government, he served for eight years as deputy city manager in Coppell in Dallas County.

SFA students to begin return; Things 'don't look good' for sports

Stephen F. Austin State University student will begin to return to campus this week for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced all in-person classes to be canceled in March.

The university’s freshman orientation, known as Jack Camp, begins Thursday in a return to some sense of normalcy for a campus that’s been largely empty for five months.

“I’ve been on college campuses for 35 years and when the students aren’t here it’s just not the same. This is something I look forward to,” university president Dr. Scott Gordon said during a conference call Tuesday with the Nacogdoches Chamber of Commerce.

The fall semester is set to begin Aug. 24, but campus life will be far from typical. Everyone on campus will be required to wear a face covering and maintain social distancing practices. Some events are in limbo, including fall sports.

“We don’t know for sure yet, but things don’t look good,” Gordon said of athletics.

Gordon was set to meet Wednesday with officials from the Southland Conference to discuss the fall athletics. Athletic directors from around the conference met Tuesday night. Several collegiate athletic conferences have canceled sports for the fall. The Big 10 said Tuesday that it would move football to the spring, and other major conferences were set to meet this week.

Enrollment for fall was flat as of Tuesday, Gordon said. That normally wouldn’t be a cause for celebration, but colleges and universities around the nation were expecting declining enrollment of around 25% because of the pandemic, Gordon said.

“Flat is the new up as far as I’m concerned. We are very pleased with the hard work that everybody has been doing to get our students here and register and set up with everything they need,” Gordon said.

The university is offering a flexible array of hybrid classes that allow for both in-person and distance learning. A portion of the multi-trillion dollar coronavirus aid package passed by Congress was set aside for expanding technological infrastructure after everything from universities to doctor’s offices were thrust into the online world because of the coronavirus pandemic. SFA used its portion of the money to outfit dozens of classrooms with distance learning technology.

The university initially extended its spring break but moved totally to distance learning after Gov. Greg Abbott closed all schools around the state through the end of the academic year. All summer classes were taught remotely.

Abbott has ordered all state-funded agencies, including SFA, to reduce budgets by 5% because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. Budget cuts are expected to partially shutter the Cole Art Center, a public arts space in a former opera house downtown,

Despite the budget cuts “there are possibilities” that student workers or volunteers might be used to staff the downtown gallery, said Dr. Steve Bullard, provost and vice president for academic affairs, in a statement Friday.

'Bittersweet' goodbye: Crespo leaving Nac High School

Nacogdoches High School is seeking a new leader after principal Dr. Rom Crespo resigned to take a similar position in the Houston area.

Crespo announced his departure in an email sent to parents of high school students Tuesday afternoon.

“I have accepted an opportunity to return to Houston for the 2020-2021 school year and although I am happy to be back at home with my family, it is bittersweet leaving such an awesome staff, groups of students, and community,” Crespo said in the email.

The decision, he said, was guided by a discussion with his wife after their youngest child graduated high school earlier this year.

“My wife and I needed to make a decision on what we would do as empty-nesters, and she requested that I return home to Houston,” Crespo said.

He was hired Aug. 3 as principal at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown. Trustees for Goose Creek Consolidated ISD voted during the same meeting to rename the school for someone other than the Confederate general and hinted that a new name could be unveiled in October.

Nacogdoches ISD officials said Tuesday that details of Crespo’s departure were still being ironed out. NISD’s first day of class is Aug. 31.

“We have not hired a replacement. The process for naming a replacement is just beginning,” NISD communications director Les Linebarger said.

Crespo was hired in June 2018 to lead NHS. He left a post as assistant principal at Katy ISD’s Patricia E. Paetrow High School to take over the high school here after the departure of Michael O’Guin. O’Guin followed former Superintendent Sandra Dowdy to Hays Consolidated ISD in Kyle, about 20 miles south of Austin. Dowdy, whose tenure at NISD was fraught with public backlash calling for her removal, remains chief academic officer at HCISD. O’Guin is now superintendent of Wharton ISD, about 60 miles southwest of Houston on U.S. 59.

Crespo was hired by Alton Frailey, the retired head of Katy ISD who led Nacogdoches ISD on an interim basis for two years.

Crespo offered thanks for support he received from the community and NISD officials, and said he would “be rooting for you from afar.”

“I know Dr. (Gabriel) Trujillo and his team will be working hard to find a suitable replacement in the next couple of weeks and I will continue to work hard for the students and staff at NHS to create our plans to start the 2020-2021 school year during these very different times,” Crespo said.

The next principal will be the high school’s third top administrator since 2016 and the fourth in the past seven years.

Food pantry in 'desperate need' of volunteers

Nacogdoches HOPE food pantry is in “desperate need” of volunteers to help with food distribution efforts, pantry officials said Monday.

“Right now we’re down to just a few people. On Thursday we’re expecting 300 cars, and we only have a few volunteers lined up to help,” said Kathy Griffin of Nacogdoches HOPE — Helping Other People Eat.

Thursday will be the next distribution, but volunteers are needed for all time slots, Griffin said. HOPE distributes food boxes from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Monday and Thursday and fresh produce from noon- 2 p.m. Thursdays.

Volunteers can sign up at nacogdocheshope.com or by sending a private massage with contact information to the organization’s Facebook page. Calls to the pantry are discouraged because of the limited around of volunteers.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, all volunteers must wear a mask and practice social distancing.

“People can come as a family and work as a team,” Griffin said.

HOPE has faced shortages of volunteers off and on since the coronavirus pandemic began. Many of the pantry’s core group of volunteers are over 60 and have been encouraged by public health officials to stay home.

While volunteers numbers have dwindled, the pandemic’s effects on the economy have caused need to skyrocket. Before the pandemic, an average food distribution day involved about 60 recipients. Now it is upwards of 300, and vehicles beginning lining up early near the food pantry at 2100 E. Main St.

The shortage of volunteers and increased need for food assistance caused the Texas National guard to step in and distribute emergency food boxes.