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Education
Connally ISD reports third staff death from COVID-19; Waco hospitalizations hit new high

McLennan County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations increased to a new high for the second consecutive day Tuesday, and Connally Independent School District announced it had lost a third employee to COVID-19.

Connally ISD informed parents Tuesday that Angela Thompson, an instructional aide at Connally Primary School in her third year with the district, had died of COVID-19. The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported the deaths of seven more residents because of COVID-19, brining the local death toll to 585.

Before Thompson’s death, Connally Junior High School teachers Natalia Chansler and David McCormick died late last month. The junior high teachers were 41 and 59.

The district closed temporarily two weeks ago, reopening after Labor Day.

Thompson returned from summer break with COVID-19 like symptoms and was last on campus Aug. 9, before students returned to class, according to an email the district sent to parents.

In the email, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Jill Bottelberghe said Thompson’s spouse is also a Connally employee and her four children attend the district.

“With the loss of a third team member, we know that concerns for physical and mental health are heightened,” Bottelberghe said. “We want to assure you that we remain focused on measures to take care of our students and staff.”

The district told parents to watch children for nervous behavior, trouble concentrating, nightmares, losing interest in activities they love or showing other signs of trauma. School counselors will be at the primary campus this week to provide additional emotional support to students.

The local public health district reported 327 new cases among residents of the county Tuesday, bringing the total active case count to 1,628.

Of that number, 106 were confirmed by molecular test from a laboratory. Another 221 are listed as “probable cases,” meaning patients tested positive using another kind of test, or have symptoms that can be traced back to an exposure to someone whose case was confirmed.

Teenagers once again had the most cases of any age group Tuesday, with 78 cases. Kids ages 1 to 10 had 53, and infants younger than 1 had 4 cases. During earlier stages of the pandemic, residents in their 20s accounted for more cases than the other age groups and still have the highest total.

There were 206 COVID-19 patients in McLennan County hospitals Tuesday, including 106 residents of the county. The percentage of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients in the hospitals has inched down to 86%.

There are 54 intensive care unit beds in use, 50 by COVID-19 patients.

“Our hospitals have been near capacity and our ICU beds have been completely full for three weeks,” according to the health district’s weekly COVID-19 status update.

The update covers numbers through Friday, before new total COVID-19 hospitalization highs arrived Monday and Tuesday.

“Our hospitals have the surge capacity to treat additional patients and convert non-ICU beds to care for critical patients, however our healthcare workers are stretched thin. Staffing continues to remain a critical need,” the update states. “This impacts ALL patients, not only those patients needing care due to COVID-19. Anyone needing critical care for illnesses, emergencies, or injuries may be delayed in receiving the care they need. All elective and non-emergency surgeries are cancelled or postponed.”

COVID-19 patients filled a little more than 35% of staffed hospital beds as of Tuesday in the five-county state trauma service area that includes McLennan County. That share is higher than any of the other 21 areas in the state.


Local
2 new Waco Hispanic-themed grocery stores plugging along

A small crew stood outside La Michoacana Meat Market under construction at 2210 W. Waco Drive, and the consensus was it would open in December.

It joins a growing number of markets and grocery stores elbowing for their spot serving the Waco area’s growing Hispanic population. Hispanic McLennan County residents accounted for about half of the county’s total growth in through the 2010s, growing to 26.3% of the 260,579 residents countywide, according to 2020 census figures.

La Michoacana was on the drawing board before the new information from the U.S. Census Bureau began to surface. Likewise, the promised Poco Loco Supermercado at North 25th Street and Bosque Boulevard has teased neighborhood shoppers so long its “coming soon” sign has faded.

But make no mistake, the pace of work there has picked up in recent weeks and months, both inside and outside. Crews have installed support for a new facade, building materials are evident, and the city of Waco on July 21 issued a permit for interior framing work.

Poco Loco Supermercado in 2018 confirmed interest in taking over the 37,000-square-foot building in North Waco previously occupied by three other Hispanic-themed grocery stores and a Winn-Dixie grocery store. It had been vacant since 2014, and remains empty pending Poco Loco’s unveiling.

The Waco store already appears on the Poco Loco website, along with multiple locations in Austin and in San Marcos, Buda, Dale, Kyle and Uhland.

Calls and email messages to Poco Loco have not been returned.

The city of Waco in 2018 approved a variance allowing Poco Loco to sell alcohol for consumption elsewhere, the variance necessary because it will operate within 300 feet of Provident Heights Elementary School.

Poco Loco will operate within a North Waco corridor brimming with Hispanic-owned businesses. The city of Waco is also building a new fire station in the corridor, where it leveled the historic 25th Street Theater that opened in 1945 but closed as a theater in 1982. It later resurfaced as a dance club, but fell into disrepair.

La Michoacana Meat Market is a full-service grocery chain based in Houston. It is going up with a store in the 2200 block of West Waco Drive, next door to Ranchito 5 Tex-Mex restaurant. La Michoacana did not return calls seeking comment, but the company website says it carries marinated meats, dairy products, Mexican candies, produce, baked goods, health and beauty items, and products from Central and South America. It also operates taquerias.

Work crews are sporadically seen at the site. Calls to determine the pace of construction were not returned. One of several people gathered at the site Saturday said the store could be ready for occupancy by December.

A filing with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation identifies the store owner as Rafael Ortega of Houston. It lists the start date as Nov. 16, 2020, and the completion date as May 21, 2021, or four months ago.

The company website says a Mexican family founded the chain in 1986 with a single store in Houston. It has grown to 140 locations, mostly in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, but also in Lufkin, Bryan and Corpus Christi.

The brand is not new to Waco. La Michoacana for nearly 18 years operated a grocery and meat market at Valley Mills Drive and Bosque Boulevard, in the Hobby Lobby center. That location now operates as La Mexicana.

A group affiliated with La Michoacana several years ago acquired acreage near Franklin Avenue and Valley Mills Drive, adjacent to AMC Galaxy 16 movie theater. The project went through fits and starts, crews even placing dirt there to accommodate the pouring of a slab. But the store never materialized, said Waco real estate agent Randy Reid, who brokered the sale of that property and now lists two parcels nearby, one under contract for sale.

Yet another store catering to Hispanic shoppers opened in 2019 on North Valley Mills Drive, next to National Tire and Battery. Supermercados Teloloapan placed there its first store outside Houston or Fort Worth.


State-and-regional
Nicholas, now a tropical depression, still douses Gulf Coast

SURFSIDE BEACH — Tropical Storm Nicholas continued weakening Tuesday night after being downgraded to a tropical depression and slowing to a crawl over southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, drenching both states with flooding rains.

The downgrade earlier Tuesday evening came the same day Nicholas blew ashore as a Category 1 hurricane, knocking out power to a half-million homes and businesses and dumping more than a foot (30.5 centimeters) of rain along the same area swamped by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Nicholas could potentially stall over storm-battered Louisiana and bring life-threatening floods across the Deep South over the coming days, forecasters said.

Nicholas made landfall early Tuesday on the eastern part of the Matagorda Peninsula and was soon downgraded to a tropical storm. By Tuesday night, its center was 15 miles (24.14 kilometers) west-northwest or Port Arthur, Texas, with maximum winds of 35 mph (55 kph) as of 10 p.m. CDT, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. However, weather radar showed the heaviest rain was over southwestern Louisiana, well east of the storm center.

The storm is moving east-northeast at 6 mph (9 kph). The National Hurricane Center said the storm may continue to slow and even stall, and although its winds will gradually subside, heavy rainfall and a significant flash flood risk will continue along the Gulf Coast for the next couple days.

Galveston, Texas, saw nearly 14 inches (35 centimeters) of rain from Nicholas, the 14th named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, while Houston reported more than 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain. That's a fraction of what fell during Harvey, which dumped more than 60 inches (152 centimeters) of rain in southeast Texas over a four-day period.

In the small coastal town of Surfside Beach about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Houston, Kirk Klaus, 59, and his wife Monica Klaus, 62, rode out the storm in their two-bedroom home, which sits about 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) above the ground on stilts.

“It was bad. I won’t ever do it again,” Kirk Klaus said.

He said it rained all day on Monday and, as the night progressed, the rainfall and winds got worse.

Sometime around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, the strong winds blew out two of his home’s windows, letting in rain and forcing the couple to continually mop their floors. Klaus said the rainfall and winds created a storm surge of about 2 feet in front of his home.

“It looked like a river out here,” he said.

Nearby, Andrew Connor, 33, of Conroe, had not been following the news at his family's rented Surfside Beach vacation house and was unaware of the storm's approach until it struck. The storm surge surrounded the beach house with water, prompting Connor to consider using surfboards to take his wife and six children to higher ground if the house flooded.

The sea never made its way through the door, but it did flood the family sport utility vehicle, Connor said.

“When I popped the hood, I had seaweed and beach toys and all that stuff in my engine,” he said.

Nicholas is moving so slowly it will dump several inches of rain as it crawls over Texas and southern Louisiana, meteorologists said. This includes areas already struck by Hurricane Ida and devastated last year by Hurricane Laura. Parts of Louisiana are saturated with nowhere for the extra water to go, so it will flood, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

“It’s stuck in a weak steering environment,” McNoldy said Tuesday. So while the storm itself may weaken “that won’t stop the rain from happening. Whether it’s a tropical storm, tropical depression or post-tropical blob, it’ll still rain a lot and that’s not really good for that area.”

More than a half-million homes and businesses had lost power in Texas, but that number dropped below 200,000 by late Tuesday afternoon, according to the website poweroutage.us that tracks utility reports. Most of those outages were caused by powerful winds as the storm moved through overnight, utility officials said. Across Louisiana, about 89,000 customers remained without power Tuesday afternoon, mostly in areas ravaged by Hurricane Ida.

Nicholas brought rain to the same area of Texas that was hit hard by Harvey, which was blamed for at least 68 deaths, including 36 in the Houston area. After Harvey, voters approved the issuance of $2.5 billion in bonds to fund flood-control projects, including the widening of bayous. The 181 projects designed to mitigate damage from future storms are at different stages of completion.

McNoldy, the hurricane researcher, said Nicholas is bringing far less rain than Harvey did.

“It’s not crazy amounts of rain. It isn’t anything like Hurricane Harvey kind of thing with feet of rain,” McNoldy said. Harvey not only stalled for three days over the same area, it moved a bit back into the Gulf of Mexico, allowing it to recharge with more water. Nicholas won’t do that, McNoldy said.

Nicholas, expected to weaken into a tropical depression by Tuesday night, could dump up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain in parts of southern Louisiana. Forecasters said southern Mississippi, southern Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle could see heavy rainfall as well.

On Tuesday, heavy rains from Nicholas pelted blue tarps that covered roofs damaged by Ida all over southern Louisiana.

Ida destroyed one building and left holes in the roof of the main plant at Motivatit Seafoods, a family-run oyster wholesaler in Houma, Louisiana. With rain from Nicholas pouring in on high-pressure processing equipment, owner Steven Voisin said he didn’t know whether the machines could be saved after the latest round of tropical weather.

“And many people from here to New Orleans have this or more damage,” he said. “They’re not going to recover quickly or easily.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency Sunday night, ahead of the storm’s arrival in a state.

In southwestern Louisiana, Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said Monday that crews were scouring the drainage system to keep it free from debris that might clog up and cause flooding. But after multiple natural disasters in such a short period of time, he said he’s worried about residents’ state of mind.

Last year, Category 4 Hurricane Laura caused substantial structural damage across the city of nearly 80,000 residents. Weeks later, Hurricane Delta ripped through the same area. Freezing temperatures in January burst pipes across the city, and a May rainstorm swamped houses and businesses yet again. Some residents have had to gut houses multiple times over one year.

“With what people have gone through over the last 16 months here in Lake Charles, they are very, understandably, despondent, emotional. Any time we have even a hint of a weather event approaching, people get scared,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Terry Wallace in Dallas; Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas; Jay Reeves in Houma, Louisiana; Rebecca Santana in New Orleans; Julie Walker in New York, and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70


Education
Some Waco-area schools question state suit over mask policies

Since Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued four Waco-area school districts Monday over mask mandates, one district has said it never had a mandate, one has said it has never enforced its mandate, and two have pointed to declines in new cases since their mandates took effect.

The suit, filed in Waco’s 414th State District Court, alleges Waco, Midway, La Vega and McGregor ISDs are deliberately violating state law in the form of an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott banning mask mandates by public schools and other state entities.

McGregor ISD has seen cases decline since starting to require masks, to the point that it is now recommending masks, not mandating them. The district started the year with no mandate, but about two weeks ago rolled out a three-stage plan to require masks on any campus where 2% or more of the population has tested positive over the course of seven days. At 5%, a campus would close.

“The district has seen a positive impact from its mitigation plan,” Superintendent James Lenamon said in a statement Tuesday. “With a positive rate dropping from 3.39% district-wide to 0.6% after entering Stage 2 on September 3, thus averting Stage 3, which involves campus closures.”

Though the district presents masking as a requirement at 2% or higher, Lenamon said it does not enforce the mandate, following a previous attorney general request.

“It is worth noting that the AG had previously requested that the district rescind the portion of its plan that required face coverings in Stage 2, or, alternatively, that the district not enforce the requirement pending the Texas Supreme Court’s disposition of other mask cases,” Lenamon said.

According to the statement, McGregor ISD has seen about 90% compliance but did not enforce the requirement as “demonstrated by the fact that no student, employees, or members of the community have been excluded or punished for non-compliance.”

Lenamon said the district is disappointed the attorney general went ahead with the suit.

Like other school officials, he said McGregor is aware of the lawsuit through the media but has not been formally served.

“We are currently conferring with counsel and the health department about appropriate next steps,” he said.

Midway ISD officials said the district does not have a mask mandate.

“We have not received information of why or how we are considered out of compliance or considered for a lawsuit,” district spokesperson Traci Marlin said. “All information thus far has been obtained only via media or social media.”

In multiple places in its COVID-19 protocols, Midway states it strongly encourages but does not require masks for students or staff, and goes on to reference Abbott’s executive orders prohibiting mask mandates.

In a COVID-19 “situational matrix,” based on case loads, the district lists a “10-day mask directive” for campuses approaching levels that would require closure, a “temporary mask directive” for certain clusters and “required masks in small group instruction & music,” for extracurriculars approaching case loads that would require the programs’ suspension, though the matrix also states those and other responses “are akin to a toolkit of possible tools to use, not a recipe to follow.”

After a directive was announced for River Valley Intermediate, Marlin said it was not a requirement, was not enforced, but was “a request from that campus community to keep the doors open because of a higher number of COVID cases.”

The lawsuit states the districts named are “deliberately violating state law” and are not above the law. It states the governor’s executive order, which has the force of law, was made to “create a uniform response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one that gives individuals the autonomy to make personal health decisions free from government control.”

“We have respected the governor’s orders while implementing thoughtful, measured and temporary responses to clusters of COVID cases,” Marlin said.

Waco ISD will “respond accordingly” when served with the lawsuit, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said in a statement Monday.

Since the district started requiring masks in its second week of fall classes, “the number of students and employees reporting that they have tested positive for COVID-19 has decreased significantly,” according to the statement.

The suit lists calls for Judge Vicki Menard to set an expedited hearing as the state’s application seeks for a temporary restraining order and a temporary injunction to block the district’s from requiring face coverings. Menard was not able to be reached for comment.

While they wait to hear from the attorney general directly, Lenamon said that McGregor ISD’s mitigation plan has shown to work.

“In any event, the district has seen a positive impact from its mitigation plan,” Lenamon said. “With a positive rate dropping from 3.39% district-wide to 0.6% after entering Stage 2 on September 3, thus averting Stage 3, which involves campus closures.”

Attempts to reach La Vega ISD officials for comment were unsuccessful.


Crime-and-courts
Waco child sexual assault trial ends in hung jury after unusual turn of events

An aggravated sexual assault of a child trial took a number of unusual twists and turns before it ended Monday night with a hung jury and a mistrial.

A 54th State District Court jury deliberated almost eight hours Monday before telling Judge Susan Kelly they were hopelessly deadlocked 8-4 in favor of finding David Tovar Ramirez guilty in the alleged sexual assault of a 7-year-old family member.

Tommy Witherspoon, Tribune-Herald  

Ramirez

Ramirez, who has been jailed 1,046 days waiting for his trial, was released on personal recognizance bond and ordered to wear an ankle monitor and remain under house arrest Tuesday afternoon after an agreement between state prosecutors Will Hix and Tara Avants and defense attorneys Jessi Freud and Alan Bennett.

No date has been set for a retrial.

Besides the hung jury, Ramirez’s trial was unorthodox in a variety of ways. Ramirez was set for trial last month. However, prosecutors dismissed the charge against him after Kelly declined to put the trial off because of the unavailability of a prosecution witness.

Hix, Avants and prosecutor Sydney Tuggle arranged for Ramirez to be re-indicted the following day on the same charge, and Ramirez, who enjoyed six days of freedom after the dismissal, was jailed again on the new indictment.

Ramirez’s trial started the day after Labor Day, but proceedings went off the rails Friday after Kelly and the attorneys on both sides met in an informal conference to discuss the judge’s instructions to the jury. The prosecutors objected to the judge’s instructions regarding the specific time frame in which the alleged assaults occurred.

After the ruling went against them, the prosecutors put the trial on hold Friday while they appealed the judge’s decision to the 10th Court of Appeals by filing an application for a writ of mandamus. The three-judge 10th Court panel denied the state’s motion Friday afternoon.

However, some assertions the prosecutors included in their application about the judge angered Kelly, who believed portions of their conference were off-the-record in an informal setting. But worse, the judge said in her response to the prosecutors Friday, was her belief that prosecutors included inaccurate statements attributed to the judge in the sworn filing to the intermediate appellate court.

Becoming visibly more animated, Kelly confronted the prosecutors about who placed what she termed the “perjured” information in the motion. Not getting an answer from the three prosecutors, she continued her queries, her voice elevating with each non-response. Ultimately, Kelly threatened to hold the prosecutors in contempt or to file State Bar of Texas grievances against them.

After that exchange, the prosecutors left the courtroom and returned with a motion to recuse, seeking to remove Kelly from the case just as closing arguments were set to begin. They alleged in the motion that Kelly showed bias against the state and acted unprofessionally toward them.

A recusal hearing was held late Friday afternoon via teleconference, with retired State District Judge Fancy Jezek, of Bell County, appointed to decide whether Kelly should stay on the case. Members of the DA’s office testified that they thought Kelly acted unprofessionally and “screamed” at the prosecutors.

Included in the state’s motion to recuse Kelly are several references to the judge as “he.” It was revealed during the hearing that the DA’s office “cut and pasted” portions of another recusal motion when they disagreed with a ruling by Associate Judge David Hodges and tried unsuccessfully to get him recused from a case.

Bennett, one of Ramirez’s attorneys, testified that he did not think Kelly screamed and said that during his 30-year law career, he had been angrily dressed down in a much more aggressive manner by other judges at the courthouse.

Freud argued that she thinks the state would not have filed the recusal motion if Kelly, who took office in January, had more experience on the bench and was a male judge.

Jezek denied the motion to recuse Kelly.

Freud and Bennett said Tuesday in a statement that they are grateful for the time and attention the jury gave to Ramirez’s case.

“The trial could have been over Friday and hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars and jury time saved but for the state’s ill-conceived and meritless attempt to pursue a middle-of-trial challenge to Judge Kelly’s neutrality as a judge and decision to properly instruct the jury on the State’s date range stipulation.

“But this is what this district attorney’s office does when they don’t get their way: they don’t play fair. Fortunately, the 10th Court of Appeals and a visiting judge saw through the gamesmanship and we were able to finish up Monday night. We look forward to retrying this case at a later date,” Freud and Bennett said.

McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson agreed that the trial of the case was unusual but said his prosecutors did not commit perjury and should not face sanctions for their actions.

“Of course, the case is still ongoing, but I can say the district attorney’s office did what we thought was the right thing to do since we are not able to appeal any error that is injected into the case by the court,” Johnson said. “So we felt like there was error and the only way we have to protect error from going into the case is by mandamus. So we filed that.

“Subsequent to that, there was some activity that went on in the courtroom that our lawyers felt was inappropriate and showed bias on the part of the judge in favor of the defense, so the district attorney’s office then chose to file a motion to recuse Judge Kelly in the case,” Johnson said. “Sometimes these old lawsuits get tangled up, and they get difficult, and we have all been in them where one flew off the rails and into the ditch and it just stays there.”

Waco attorney Josh Tetens, who is opposing Johnson in the Republican primary, attended Friday’s court proceedings, vigorously taking notes that he said would be used as ammunition in his bid to unseat the incumbent DA.

“For the second time in less than six months, the State has tried to have a Judge recused because they disagree with their ruling,” Tetens said in a statement. “Barry Johnson must have learned this while practicing in Dallas County. In McLennan County we don’t throw the judge under the bus because we don’t get our way. As the next District Attorney I commit that I will seek justice, and not delay it with frivolous motions that waste taxpayer dollars and further delay cases.”


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