Katy ISD goes back to school with virtual option for grades K-6, without a mask requirement

Students filled the halls of Haskett Junior High School in Katy ISD for the first time on Wednesday. 

"It's a dream come true for any principal to be able to open up a new school," said Dr. David Paz, the school's principal.

The school is named in honor of Bill and Cindy Haskett, longtime educators in Katy ISD.

MORE: The push to vaccinate Houston adolescents and school staff against COVID-19 intensifies

"It's really an honor to take that baton from what they've done for students for so many years and carry that torch and their legacy," said Paz.

As students go back to school, health officials paint a grim backdrop as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.

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This has moved more school districts to defy Governor Greg Abbott's order banning mask mandates. Texas City ISD was the last local district to require masks.  

Katy ISD is making masks optional. As Superintendent Dr. Ken Gregorski welcomed students at Haskett Junior High, he was not wearing one. He insists his hands are tied.

"We are keeping in alignment with the Governor’s order on that and all of our families have an option to wear a mask and we’re just relying on everybody to do their part to keep everybody safe," he told FOX 26.

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The district reports they have free COVID-19 testing available for staff and hope to offer testing to students soon. 

Katy ISD also says it is working with families of students with special health needs and offering Katy Virtual Academy for kindergarten through 6th grade. Those grades were selected because children 11 years and younger are not eligible for the vaccine. 

RELATED: Harris Co. Public Health Authority requiring teachers, students in public schools to wear masks

Meanwhile, the Harris County health officials continue to sound the alarm. On Wednesday, Commissioner Adrian Garcia and top health leaders addressed the surge in COVID-19 that challenging healthcare workers.

"Face coverings are not a replacement for vaccinations. We want to protect those who cannot get the vaccine," said Gwen Sims with Harris County Public Health.

The county's positivity rate over 20 percent, and hospitalizations among younger groups including children are increasing.

"This surge in the pandemic this is not about personal freedom. This is not about personal choice. This is about personal responsibility, and a large segment of our population is simply refusing to practice their personal responsibility," said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO, Harris Health System. 

RELATED: Demand for COVID-19 vaccines multiplies as Houston hospitals treat more sick patients

On Wednesday, Katy ISD reported 264 active cases in the district -- 163 among students and 101 among staff. Nearly half of all the cases are in elementary schools.

The district says they have a plan in case of prolonged absences by students and staff due to COVID-19 illness. Paz says the district has a bank of substitute teachers, the ability to consolidate classes, and the ability to adapt to allow teachers to teach remotely. Gregorski also points to the Texas Home Learning program by the Texas Education Agency.