Secondary schools and colleges in Wales will move to online learning from Monday in a “national effort to reduce transmission of coronavirus”, the country’s education minister has said.
Kirsty Williams said the decision followed advice from the Welsh chief medical officer (CMO) that the public health situation in the country is “deteriorating”.
Almost half of all Welsh schools have registered zero cases of the virus since they opened in September but Ms Williams said it was now recognised that schools can contribute to wider social mixing outside the education environment.
On Thursday, Ms Williams said: “Every day, we are seeing more and more people admitted to hospital with coronavirus symptoms.
“The virus is putting our health service under significant and sustained pressure and it is important we all make a contribution to reduce its transmission.
“In his advice to me today, the CMO recommends that a move to online learning should be implemented for secondary school pupils as soon as is practicable.”
The decision taken in Wales comes after schools in England were told they can take an inset day on the last Friday of term so staff have a “proper break” from identifying potential Covid-19 cases ahead of Christmas.
She added: “Having spoken to local education leaders, I am confident that schools and colleges have online learning provision in place.
“This will also be important in ensuring that students are at home during this time, learning and staying safe.
“Critically, and this is very important, children should be at home.
“This is not an early Christmas holiday, please do everything you can to minimise your contact with others.”
The latest Test Trace Protect data in Wales shows that rates of Covid-19 have exceeded 370 people out of 100,000 of the population, with a test positivity of 17%.
Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru, said she supported the decision but asked that a “close eye” was kept on the situation in primary schools.
She said: “We recognise that this action is targeted at secondary schools because the risk of transmission is higher among this age group than primary-age children.
“However, we urge the Welsh government and local authorities to keep a close eye on the situation in primary schools and take appropriate action if needed.
“We are concerned that positive cases during the final week of term could lead to large numbers of pupils and staff having to self-isolate over Christmas.”
David Evans, Wales secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) Cymru, said the break should act as “an opportunity to slow down the spread of the virus before the festive break”.
He added: “Our members in primary schools will rightly still be concerned about this decision. However, the minister has agreed to look at any new evidence which suggests that the primary sector should move to distance learning.”
Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, said the decision was “right” for secondary schools but added: “We are bitterly disappointed for primary schools and their families.
“This decision ignores Welsh government’s own advice on pre-isolating before seeing extended family over the Christmas holidays.”