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Pandemic has minor impact on SFA enrollment

Stephen F. Austin State University’s enrollment fell, but only slightly, for the fall semester, while more students are choosing to pursue higher level degrees at the university.

Fall enrollment totaled 12,620 students, a decrease of 349 students, or 2.7%. However, there was a 10.7% increase in SFA’s graduate enrollment, from 1,475 students in fall 2019 to 1,633 students in fall 2020. The small decline in enrollment and the increase in graduate enrollment means SFA is down only about 1% in credit hours being offered this semester, university president Dr. Scott Gordon said.

“Faculty, staff, every single office on this campus really worked hard to solidify our numbers for fall semester,” Gordon told the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

Nationally, universities had been bracing for double-digit decreases in enrollment percentages. Instead, SFA saw double-digit growth in its graduate programs.

“Among the graduate students, there was a 36.5% increase in the number of new graduate students, so that is especially encouraging,” said Erma Brecht, executive director of enrollment management. “SFA’s commitment to flexible course and program offerings allowed graduate students to select options that best fit their needs, such as 16-week or 8-week terms and face-to-face, online, Zoom or a hybrid delivery.” Within undergraduate enrollment, administrators believe the decrease in freshman students, from 3,643 in fall 2019 to 3,109, is due to pandemic-related uncertainty. Enrollment of junior-level students increased 2.1%, from 2,639 in 2019 to 2,694; there was a 3.8% increase among seniors, from 2,895 to 3,005. Each of the six colleges experienced growth in their graduate-student headcount, with the Perkins College of Education enrolling 874 students, an 8.2% increase since fall 2019, and the College of Liberal and Applied Arts enrolling 287 students, a 22.1% increase. There are 143 graduate students in the Rusche College of Business, 79 in the College of Fine Arts, 91 in the Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, and 159 in Sciences and Mathematics. Administrators were especially pleased with retention rates — the number of students who return to the university from fall to fall — which indicate a potential 7% increase, which Gordon said is a record for SFA. The retention rate grew from 70% in fall 2019 to 77% this fall. “A lot of people are not only working hard to attract students to the university but retain our students,” Gordon said.

Brecht added that SFA faculty, staff and administrators understood this fall was going to look and feel different than normal. “Faculty and staff prepared course offerings in multiple modalities to meet students’ needs and provided student services virtually,” she said. “We thank them for their dedication, and we also thank our students and their families for their commitment to SFA.”

City grants zoning, setback changes

After holding public hearings via video conference, Nacogdoches City Council on Tuesday granted a zone change for a Starr Avenue lot and allowed a change in requirements for a planned development surrounding the future Nacogdoches Senior Center.

Due to the pandemic, regular meetings of the council are held by videoconference and livestreamed on the city channel at ci.nacogdoches.tx.us/21.

Council voted unanimously to grant a requested rezoning of 614 Starr Ave. from multi-family to medical after hearing of the applicant’s plans to repurpose the single family rental on the property into a medical office.

Seven written notices were sent to neighboring properties, City Planner Alaina Chafin said. Once home to the Blood Center of East Texas, the now vacant property more recently served as a residential rental.

A second public hearing focused on the Austin Hills Subdivision, a planned single-family development under construction near a vacant church that is slated to be transformed into a new Senior Center.

After a presentation and discussion, the council unanimously agreed to allow a change to the development’s setback requirements for six corner properties — reducing the front yard setback from 20 to 15 feet.

A 20-foot setback for corner lots “really reduces the size of those homes that would be allowed on the property,” Chafin told the council.

The extra five feet will allow future homes to more closely match the ones already built, applicant and developer Varron McLemore said.

Several homes in the new development were sold before completion, he said, and four of the lots have closed in the last six weeks.

“There’s been an amazing resurgence of interest in the neighborhood — I think that’s helped by the senior citizen’s center coming there and by the fact people found out what a hidden gem we have there,” McLemore said.

Planned developments allow a city to tailor requirements within a zoning district. Tuesday’s amendment is a minor one, Chafin said.

“Because it’s part of a (planned development), we have to go through the amendment process,” she said. “It will actually create more cohesive character for those homes already built in the area.”

Eighteen written notices were sent to surrounding residents, she said. None of the notices drew a response, Chafin said, but the city did get a call from a nearby resident who didn’t receive a notice called to ask questions.

“One we explained the land use wasn’t changing, that it was just a reduction in the building setback she supported the request.”

Lots affected are located at the intersection of Eric and Opal drives, at Eric and Harvey Austin drives and at Emily Court and Harvey Austin Drive.

Voter registration deadline nears

The voter registration deadline of Oct. 5 is quickly approaching and Election Day is less than six weeks away. So this week in conjunction with Tuesday’s National Voter Registration Day, political parties, elections officials and nonpartisan groups are entering the final phase of a push to ensure that every eligible Texan can cast a ballot Nov. 3.

As of this week, Texas has 16,617,436 registered voters, which is a state record.

“An active and engaged citizenry plays an essential role in ensuring the continued well-being of our democracy,” Texas Secretary of State Ruth R. Hugh said in a statement. “Ahead of the November election, I encourage all eligible Texans who have not already done so to register to vote by Oct. 5 so that they can help shape the future of the Lone Star State.”

Democrats held a registration event Tuesday evening at party headquarters and have drive-thru non-partisan registration event set for 5-7 p.m. Wednesday at Antioch Baptist Church, 1421 Greer St. Republicans didn’t announced any special events but have been registering voters at their headquarters, which is open from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. GOP headquarters is at 4017 North St.

At Stephen F. Austin State University, the nonpartisan group Lumberjacks Vote has been registering college students. Students living in Nacogdoches can vote by mail in their home counties, or can change their registration to a Nacogdoches address and be allowed to vote at the SFA campus polling location.

The group is made up of faculty and staff across campus who have been trained as voter registrars, but the initiative is being led by the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, Orientation and Transition Programs and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

“We offer students a daily, nonpartisan way to register to vote,” said Dr. Adam Peck, assistant vice president for university affairs and dean of student affairs. “This is the second general election for which we’ve done the Lumberjacks Vote initiative, and it involves coordination of different voter registration efforts. We’ve worked with the local elections commissioner to train individuals in offices throughout campus to become deputy voter registrars. These areas display our Lumberjacks Vote logo.”

Top of the ballot

The 2020 election is expected to have record-breaking turnout as voters decide a presidential race between incumbent Republican Donald Trumep and Democratic challenger Joe Biden and a small slate of third-party candidates who have failed to break through in the polls.

Texans will also decide who will represent them in the U.S. Senate. Republican incumbent John Cornyn is being challenged by Democrat MJ Hegar, David B. Collins of the Green Party and Libertarian Kerry McKennon. Democrats successfully sued to remove Collins from the ballot, but he was reinstated in a Texas Supreme Court decision that is delaying the roll out of mail-in ballots. Ricardo Turullols-Bonilla is also running as a write-in candidate.

In a race for the U.S. House, incumbent Louie Gohmert, a Republican, is being challenged by Democrat Hank Gilbert. Gohmert’s a controversial figure in Washington and an ardent defender of President Trump, but at the ballot box he’s been popular with East Texans since he was first elected in 2004 when he defeated Democrat Max Sandlin.

In the race for state representative, incumbent Republican Travis Clardy is being challenged on the ballot by Democrat Alec Johnson.

Other state races include railroad commissioner, state board of education, and several judicial seats.

Countywide races

Voters will decide in November who will fill the soon-to-be-vacant bench of the 145th District Court.

Republican Jeff Davis, the current city attorney for Nacogdoches, and Democrat Noel Cooper, an attorney in private practice, are vying to replace the retiring Campbell Cox who has been on the bench since 2001.

Cox announced earlier this year that he planned to retire and his replacement is likely to have the same longevity on the bench.

Cities and schools

Voters will decide if businesses in Appleby can sell alcoholic beverages, two leadership positions on the Garrison City Council and five school board races.

Those elections were set for May but delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Mail-in ballots sent out this spring were scrapped after a candidate in the Cushing ISD board race dropped out.

Early voting

Extended by six days by Gov. Greg Abbott, early voting will run from Oct. 13 through Oct. 30. In addition to the regular location at the Courthouse Annex, 203 W. Main St., early voting will be held at the Garrison City Office, Cushing ISD, Chireno Community Center, Woden ISD, the SFA Student Center and at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Staff writer Nicole Bradford contributed to this report.

Survey says chamber members want in-person events

Nearly 60% of Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce members who responded to a recent survey want the organization to begin in-person events again.

Of the 43 members who responded to the survey sent out by chamber CEO C. Wayne Mitchell, 25 indicated they want to immediately return to face-to-face meetings and events. Eleven said now is too early for such events and seven said they were unsure.

“I found that quite surprising,” Mitchell said. “I thought the noes and yeses would be reversed and that we’d have many more noes at this point. It’s clear that there’s folks out there who are anxious to get back to some form of normal, whatever that is in this new COVID-19 environment.”

The chamber is sponsoring several upcoming events that Mitchell said will “give us some better insight” on returning to a normalized schedule of events. In lieu of luncheons and mixers, for the past few months, chamber members have met each Tuesday via videoconference. Nacogdoches City Manager Mario Canizares was set to address the chamber Aug. 27 in one of the first in-person chamber events during the coronavirus pandemic, but that breakfast was delayed because of the threat of Hurricane Laura. He’s now expected to speak Oct. 8.

On Thursday, Nacogdoches ISD Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo will speak to chamber during an in-person breakfast, which will also be streamed online. Registration to attend the event closed Tuesday afternoon.

“There are lot of issues going on and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to ask questions,” Mitchell said.

The chamber will move forward with the Blueberry Golf Bash set for Oct. 16 as well as some type of event to honor annual business award winners.

“We’re going to be practicing rather stringent COVID-19 protocols,” Mitchell said.

New cases, one more death added

Texas Health and Human Services on Tuesday added another fatality and 14 new cases to Nacogdoches County’s coronavirus totals, but a rolling average of new cases has been holding steady for the past few weeks.

A 21-day trendline compiled by Nacogdoches County Emergency Management shows the average new cases at just under 10 per day, down from a high of more than 20 per day in late July and early August.

“It’s a real deal. There’s no room for anybody to talk about this as a hoax,” state Rep. Travis Clardy said in a weekly conference hosted Tuesday by the Nacogdoches Chamber. “But it does seem like we’re getting better at having life as usual.”

The City of Nacogdoches this week announced an appointment-only reopening of the public library Oct. 1. Meanwhile, local schools entered their third week of classes, with some students attending in person and others opting to learn virtually.

On Tuesday, Nacogdoches ISD reported two students from Nacogdoches High and one from Fredonia Elementary had tested positive, along with an employee at Mike Moses Middle School. None had been on their respective campuses since last week. Since the district began reporting confirmed cases on Sept. 14, two employee and 11 students have tested positive. NISD updates information daily under the link titled “COVID-19 information” on the website, NacISD.org.

SFA on Tuesday reported 45 active cases among students and staff, 26 of whom had been on campus while contagious.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of symptomatic positive tests and we’re very fortunate there,” SFA President Dr. Scott Gordon said during Tuesday’s update.

The university has set aside 200 spaces for on-campus students who need to be isolated; 14 of those are currently in use.

“We’ve got a lot of room there,” Gordon said. “Hopefully we won’t have to use it, but nonetheless we have it if necessary.”

SFA lists positive cases under the green “Open SFA” tab located at the university’s website, sfasu.edu.

A drop in cases at the County Jail prompted County Commissioners on Tuesday to discontinue hazard pay for jail staff.

Cases at the jail swelled to more than 100 over the summer. As of this week, however, one documented active case remains.

“We are continuing to test weekly and bi-weekly incoming inmates and any inmates that get sick,” Jail Administrator David Crisp told commissioners.

More than 14,500 tests have been administered in the county since the pandemic began in March. Sixty-one of the 1,530 patients who have tested positive died. Active cases — those who are still contagious — are estimated at 95.

As of Tuesday, 16 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Nacogdoches, with four of those in intensive care, according to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council.

Nacogdoches Memorial Hospital admitted 39 COVID-19 patients in September, Chief Nursing Officer Kristine Sutton told the hospital’s board Tuesday. Twenty-eight patients at the hospital have died of COVID-19 since April, with seven deaths occurring in August and two in September.

“We have state resources,” Sutton said. “We have five ventilators that are on loan right now.”

The hospital received a large shipment of personal protective equipment from the state on Monday, and Memorial has also been using state-employed nurses and respiratory therapists to care for patients with the coronavirus.

Staff writer Josh Edwards contributed to this report.