MONTREAL -- With high-school students returning to in-person classes next week, the unions representing teachers and other school staff are urging the province to reconsider, citing fears of increased outbreaks.

On Tuesday, Premier Francois Legault announced that secondary students, who had previously been learning through a hybrid model of online and in-person classes, will return physically to school full time, even in red zones.

“For me, that is wonderful news,” said the premier, “because that's where our children should be, in school every day."

But not everyone agrees.

“Teachers feel once again abandoned by their government,” said Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT), a major education union.

“I think we're going to see an increase of cases. I think we're going to see an increase of classes and schools closing. This is not only going to infect students and their teachers, it's going to infect entire families."

Another union president echoed Yetman.

“We agree with returning students to class, but not at the cost of putting the health of staff, students and the community at greater risk,” said Federation of Private Education Personnel (FPEP-CSQ) president Stéphane Lapointe in a Tuesday release.


English Montreal School Board (EMSB) spokesperson Michael Cohen said the news came as a shock to schools throughout the network.

"The news caught us all by surprise, and we have a number of days in which we have to put our plan together," said Cohen.

Cohen said principals and other administration members are meeting Wednesday to come up with a plan to put in place for Monday.

High schools, he added, vary in size and structure and each has its own needs and demands.

"It's not one-size-fits-all," he said. "Can they all be ready for Monday? Is it feasible? We're going to find out, and we're hoping on Thursday that we'll have a better, clearer picture on how we'll proceed."

While cases have generally hovered between 700 and 800 new infections per day, Lapointe says that a return to class could be soon followed by a third wave. 

"The premier is pleased that Quebec has so far managed to resist a third wave," he said. "But, with today's announcement, we have the impression that he is putting the elements in place to provoke it."

As of the most recent report, on March 22, the province reported that there were 2,116 active coronavirus cases among students and staff across the province.

Overall, 19.3 per cent of active outbreaks are taking place in educational facilities -- the second-largest share of total outbreaks in the province, behind workplaces.

Cohen said that the schools were functioning well to this point in the year, and the drastic shift may cause issues.

"We have a model that's been working very well for the past many months," said Cohen. "To put everything back together again the way it was for day one of class, in a short period of time, may be difficult."

Three EMSB high schools, Cohen added, closed last week due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

"How do those schools come back after they've been shut down due to COVID, and go from completely online to 100 per cent in person?" he said.

"These are questions that we need answers to. It is not as simple as it sounds. You don't just flick a switch, open the door and all the students come walking inside."

The main reasons for taking the risk of reopening now are mental-health concerns among teens and the fact that they can't get as good an education at home, said Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda on Tuesday.

"There are students who are going to miss their year if they're not at school," he said.


Cases of the coronavirus variants have caused closures in several Montreal schools in recent weeks, prompting the city to launch a pilot program to vaccinate parents and staff in some affected schools.

READ MORE: In the race to stamp out COVID variant, can Montreal's pilot project succeed? Experts weigh in

Cases of the U.K. and South African variants have climbed steadily in the province after first being discovered in late December.

Now, variants represent 30 per cent of new cases, according to Legault.

"Next month, most of the new cases will be variants," he said on Tuesday.

--With files from CTV News Reporter Selena Ross and Angela Mackenzie.