The Welsh Government is following scientific advice by holding back a full return for school pupils until after Easter, Education Minister Kirsty Williams has said.
Ms Williams said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had advised that a “phased return” was necessary to monitor its effect on Covid transmission rates, despite a full return for pupils in England on Monday.
Her comments came as Public Health Wales recorded no new deaths for the country for the first time since September 21, though the agency said there was often a reporting lag following the weekend.
Ms Williams said it had been “wonderful” to see pupils aged between three and seven back in schools in Wales over the last fortnight, while older primary pupils and secondary and college learners in exam years will be allowed to return from next week and “flexibility” given to those in years ten and 12.
But asked whether she regretted holding back a full return for all learners until after Easter, unlike the approach taken in England, Ms Williams told a press briefing in Cardiff that it was the Welsh Government which was following the science.
“What’s really important to remember is back in February Sage were very clear in their advice to governments that a phased return to school was critically important in being able to monitor the impact on the pandemic as we move forward,” she said.
Ms Williams said the public’s “hard work” in keeping to coronavirus restrictions meant years seven, eight and nine will also be allowed to “check-in” on a limited number of days with their teachers before the Easter break.
She added: “In following the advice of Sage and experts here in Wales, we can make that return as successful and safe as possible.”
Ms Williams said that by the end of this week more than five-and-a-half million lateral flow tests, which give rapid results for Covid-19 infections, will have been distributed to schools, colleges and childcare settings across the country.
She said she would “encourage” students in years ten to 13 to undertake twice-weekly the tests at home to give them “greater levels of assurance”, but said they would not become mandatory.
Ms Williams also said there was “a debate to be had” about changing the length of school holidays, with England’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson looking at proposals for a shorter summer break and longer school days to help pupils catch up on learning lost during the pandemic.
But she said “simply piling more pressure on to our children” as well as teachers would not “get us where we would all want to be”.
Wales currently has a seven-day rate of 45 cases per 100,000, while a total of 998,296 first doses and 183,739 second doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been given.