INCREASING pressure from parents and a teaching union which represents more than 29,000 leaders in early years, primary, secondary and special schools has prompted the Welsh Government to delay the opening of schools for thousands of pupils.

Parents and guardians across Denbighshire and Conwy aired ‘grave concerns’ about children returning to school in Wales; initially a gradual re-opening approach was in place with a majority of school expected to open their doors fully by January 18.

However, on Monday night, Kirsty Williams, minister for education, said the situation in Wales and across the UK remains “very serious” and it has been agreed that all schools, colleges and independent schools should move to online learning until January 18.

Ms Williams added: “We had initially given schools flexibility in the first two weeks of term to decide when to reopen based on local circumstances. But it is now clear that a national approach of online learning for the first fortnight of term is the best way forward.

“We know that schools and colleges have been safe and secure environments throughout the pandemic.

“However, we also know that education settings being open can contribute to wider social mixing outside the school and college environment.

"We are confident that schools and colleges have online learning provision in place for this immediate period,

"Universities in Wales have already agreed a staggered start to term. Students should not return to universities for face to face learning until they are notified that they can do so.

"Wales remains in the highest level of restrictions. Everyone must stay at home."

Schools and colleges will stay open for children of critical workers and vulnerable learners, as well as for learners who need to complete essential exams or assessments.

Special Schools and PRU’s have been advised to remain open if possible.

School leaders’ union NAHT Cymru said the decision to close schools to gain control of Coronavirus has been “inevitable for some time”.

“Work should be undertaken with school leaders and Public Health Wales to establish and agree new Covid-related safety measures in schools during the temporary restriction for implementation in good time prior to lifting restrictions,” Laura Doel, director of NAHT Cymru said.

“There needs to focus on vaccinating staff so that further disruption to teaching and learning can be ruled out.

“Welsh Government must also urgently review its approach to special schools given the statement that states special schools should remain open if possible. This once again demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the complexities faced in special schools in keeping Covidrestrictions in place.”

Father Chris Evans was among parents calling for schools to close.

His children attend Christ the Word Catholic School in Rhyl.

"My eldest child suffers from a condition called Lupus and if she catches Covid-19, it could well kill her," Mr Evans said.

"I've sent an email to the health minister and the same email to the education minister - but I've not had an email back.

"Christ the Word has already had cases in the school and my children had to take time out."

Tom Ward, of Meliden, is a parent of three children; one child in primary school and two in secondary school.

"My children have been going to school but now with the new strain of Covid-19... if it is not safe to have all the shops open and other public premises open, then it is not safe for the children to go to school," he said.

"There is no social distancing in school. I don't think I will be sending my children to school this term."

Another parent, who asked not to be named, said her children will not be returning to school "until it is safe."

"It is such a dangerous situation the government is putting children in," she said.

"I can assure you my kids will not be returning back to school until it is safe do so I will continue to home-school until I think its safe."

Zoe Gaskill, who has been shielding, and has had a letter from the Welsh Government informing her that she must not go to school or work if previously shielding, said: "I worry that my son will soon be going back to secondary school and could bring the virus home to me who during the week is his only parent."

"I can’t not hug him if he’s sad or help him. It’s worrying."

Lydia Anne said her children - who attend Ysgol Y Castell in Rhuddlan - are desperate to go back to school, but she feels it is "a big gamble".

Lydia told the Journal: "They miss their friends and the routine it gives them. I’m desperate for them to go back to school as well. Working from home with them here, is hard and as a key worker things are busier than ever in work right now.

"I’m juggling work, childcare and home schooling like many others and it’s not working.

"But with all the uncertainty around the new strain of the virus, all the reports on how strained the NHS is, it seems a big gamble to send the children back to school and it’s a gamble I just don’t understand."

Victoria Davies, of Rhyl, said she and her partner have five children - three being of school age.

"Samuel, who is six-years-old, has physical disabilities and is oxygen dependent and peg fed," Victoria Daid.

"We are in an unusual position of shielding Samuel at the moment, but until the announcement from the Welsh Government his brothers would have been expected to attend school which makes the shielding a bit pointless as the boys mix with hundreds of different children during a school day.

"It feels impossible to keep Samuel safe but for the last 10 months or so we have managed it up to now."

Ms Doel, director of NAHT Cymru, the Welsh school leaders’ union, added: "“It is uncertain whether the next two weeks will be enough time to ensure a fully risk-assessed plan is put in place to facilitate the safe return with a properly organised and resourced testing regime and priority vaccinations for staff, but I know that NAHT Cymru members stand ready to work with the government for the good of all children.

"For its part the government should be prepared to work directly with leaders from every phase and sector of education."