Researchers at UdeM and in Ontario and British Columbia will try to determine the prevalence of the disease among teachers and education workers, as well the pandemic’s effect on their mental health.
Three research projects – one each in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia – will estimate how many teachers and school personnel have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, thanks to $2.9 million in funding from the federal COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF).
The studies aim to inform decision-making around prevention strategies in neighbourhoods, schools and daycares and will help with vaccine surveillance once vaccines are made available to teaching personnel. The studies will also evaluate the mental health repercussions of the pandemic on teachers.
“Numerous experts agree that keeping children in school is the best option for their education and their mental health,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. “But we need to also understand what the risks are for teachers in terms of infection and mental health repercussions.”
Blood samples will be collected to establish how many have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, indicating a previous infection. A questionnaire will also help determine both the risks they faced and the protective measures they took, at the individual, household, school and community levels.
Opting for vaccination
The studies will determine how many teachers and education workers will opt to get vaccinated, once vaccinations become available to them. It will also look at antibodies detected in their blood after immunization at several points in time, to see what that could mean for their immunity.
“Although daycare and school staff may have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 in their work settings, we don’t much data about how many school staff have had asymptomatic infections, meaning they had no symptoms but potentially could transmit the virus,” said CITF co-chair Dr. Cate Hankins.
“The pandemic has also had negative impacts on daycare and school personnel for various reasons which the studies will document,” she said. “Examples include feeling anxiety about the potential risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, being responsible for ensuring compliance with infection control measures, and experiencing the disruption that the pandemic has had on their work and their workplace.”
The Quebec study will build on an existing CITF-funded study named EnCORE, which has been determining the number of students and of children at daycares who have SARS-CoV-2 in four Montreal neighbourhoods. The new study will go back to the same schools and daycares in Beaconsfield, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Montreal-North and the Plateau-Mont-Royal, to determine how many staff members have had SARS-CoV-2 and will measure how antibody levels fluctuate over the next six months. The study will also establish the prevalence of pandemic-related emotional and mental health issues.
An online questionnaire
“Participants will have to complete an online questionnaire to collect information on health, socio-demographics, COVID-19 prevention practices, and mental and emotional health,” said Kate Zinszer, an assistant professor at UdeM’s School of Public Health and researcher at the Public Health Research Institute. “We will also be asking about whether they have received a vaccine, and which one, and incorporating this information into our analysis.”
The Ontario study aims to enroll 7,000 teachers and education workers and will follow participants for 12 months to determine the factors associated with infection.
“Blood tests are an important part of our study,” said Brenda Coleman, a researcher at Sinai Health and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “They allow us to determine how many participants have already been exposed to the virus, how many become exposed between enrolment and the end of the study, whether vaccination induces antibodies, and whether antibody levels change over time. We also ask participants to fill out the questionnaires to assess their levels of distress over time.”
Focus on Vancouver
The study in British Columbia will focus on educators and students within the Vancouver School District. It aims to determine how many teachers have already acquired SARS-CoV-2 by checking blood samples for antibodies. The study will also examine the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in schools and assess the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of teachers.
“To get a more complete picture of how many people are exposed to the virus in schools, the research team will check blood samples from teachers for antibodies indicating a previous exposure to SARS-CoV-2,” said pediatrician Pascal Lavoie, an investigator at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute and associate professor at the University of British Columbia.
“Additionally, in the months to come, when a student has been declared positive for COVID-19, we will test students who were in direct contact with them using a non-invasive mouth rinse gargle test that was first evaluated and implemented at BC Children’s Hospital.”
Researchers in all three provincial studies will inform participating school staff if they have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, although that still does not guarantee immunity against the virus that causes COVID-19.
About the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force
In late April 2020, the Government of Canada established the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) with a two-year mandate. The task force is overseen by a group of volunteers that includes leading Canadian scientists and experts from universities and healthcare facilities across Canada who are focused on understanding the nature of immunity arising from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. To that end, the CITF is supporting numerous studies to determine the extent of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Canada (in the general population as well as in specific communities and priority populations), understand the nature of immunity following infection, develop improved antibody testing methods, and help monitor the effectiveness and safety of vaccines as they are rolled out across Canada.