KITCHENER -- Students in Waterloo Region will move to online learning after the April break.

The province announced the decision at a press conference on Monday afternoon.

"We are seeing a rapidly deteriorating situation with a record number of COVID cases and hospital admissions threatening to overwhelm our health care system," Premier Doug Ford said in a news release. "As I have always said we will do whatever it takes to ensure everyone stays safe. By keeping kids home longer after spring break we will limit community transmission, take pressure off our hospitals and allow more time to rollout our COVID-19 vaccine plan." 

Provincial health officials said, while schools have stayed relatively safe through the pandemic, there are concerns regarding spread of the disease within the community. Ford said he didn't want to risk sending children back to school after a week-long break in the community.

"We simply can't be too cautious right now. We have to be proactive," Ford said.

Waterloo Region's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said she's supportive of the decision to move to online learning.

"We know that in communities with very high and accelerating rates of community spread, more children and adults will acquire COVID-19, and this will lead to impacts for schools," a statement from Dr. Wang said in part. "Case rates in Waterloo Region are increasing rapidly, and variants of concern are now the predominant strain of COVID-19 circulating in our community."

Dr. Wang called the move to close schools to in-person learning a "necessary step at this time."

"Reducing our mobility and close contacts reduces the spread of COVID-19," she said.

A spokesperson for the Waterloo Region District School Board said they're ready to transition to remote learning, adding they sent devices home with elementary students who needed them ahead of the break.

Loretta Notten, director of education at the Waterloo Catholic District School Board, said their primary concern is maintaining the health and safety of students and staff.

"For that reason, we are supportive of the current decision by the provincial government," a statement from Notten said in part. "We welcome the opportunity to provide direct service to our most vulnerable students, but we know that for the majority of our students the safest decision at this time is a pivot to virtual learning."

Notten said the board is looking forward to welcoming back students when it is "safe to do so."

"This was not a decision we made lightly, as we know how critical schools are to Ontario students. Our priority has always been to keep schools open, however sharply rising community transmission can put our schools and Ontario families at risk," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in the release. "While Ontario's plan has kept schools safe, as confirmed by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, we are taking decisive and preventative action today to ensure students can safely return to learning in our schools."

The province doesn't have a date in mind for when students can return to in-person learning, but Lecce said they will try to do so as soon as it is possible.

Child care is available for non-school aged children and the province will provide free emergency child care for front-line workers.

Last week, the region's public and Catholic school boards both advised students to take home all personal belongings ahead of the break.