A study, funded by the Government of Canada through its COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), has found the risk of staff acquiring SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in schools is no greater than their risk of acquiring the virus in day-to-day life in the community. The findings have been published as a pre-print ahead of peer review.
Researchers from BC Children’s Hospital, the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) examined COVID-19 infection among Vancouver School District staff during the 2020-2021 school year. Researchers tested school staff for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies—a sign of prior infection—to determine how many had been infected with the virus, whether or not they had felt symptoms. Of the 1,556 school staff who had their blood sample tested, 2.3 per cent tested positive for antibodies. This percentage was similar to the number of infections in a reference group of blood donors matched by age, sex and area of residence. The results confirm the low prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection among staff in the school setting.
“These findings show that, with appropriate mitigation strategies in place, in-person schooling is not associated with significantly increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission for classroom-based staff compared to members of the general population,” says Dr. Pascal Lavoie, principal investigator of the study, an investigator at BC Children’s Hospital, a pediatrician and Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UBC.
“Even when we account for asymptomatic infection using sensitive blood tests, the risk of SARS-CoV-2 being transmitted in schools overall remains very low,” says Dr. David Goldfarb, co-investigator and lead author of the article. Dr. Goldfarb is an investigator and a medical microbiologist at BC Children’s Hospital and Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC.
Of the 1,689 school staff surveyed, 278 reported close contact with a student or co-worker who was a COVID-19 case, but only five staff who were infected with SARS-CoV-2 believed they likely acquired the virus in the school setting. Another seven staff infected with SARS-CoV-2 reported a close contact with a friend or family member as the main source of contact.
“The results suggest that only a few teachers and school staff contracted SARS-CoV-2, and most assume that they did not contract it at school and thought they caught it from friends or family,” adds Dr. Lavoie.
The study also reports on positive viral polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests in students and staff—the number of people who were tested and were found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 at the time they were tested. Within the Vancouver School District, 0.98 per cent of the 47,280 students, and 1.3 per cent of the 7,071 staff attending the Vancouver School District received a diagnosis of COVID-19 between the start of the pandemic and March 4, 2021. In this study, school staff reported consistent rates of positive viral tests which are similar to the Vancouver School District—1.3 per cent.
“We hope our findings will help inform school opening and closure policies moving forward,” says co-lead researcher Dr. Louise Mâsse, an investigator at BC Children’s Hospital and Professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC.
“We know how important in-person schooling is for our students, not only for learning, but also for their social, mental and physical well-being,” says Suzanne Hoffman, superintendent of schools for the Vancouver School District. “These results reaffirm that with the protocols we have in place, schools are safe places to teach and learn.”
“Our Task Force has funded three research projects looking at the risk of COVID-19 for school staff and this is one of them,” says CITF Leadership Group member Dr. Mel Krajden, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC. “This study highlights that COVID-19 in a school setting typically mirrors transmission from family and community contacts. As more and more Canadians are vaccinated, this will be expected to further reduce family—and community—based COVID-19 transmission. The results of this study are very timely as provincial governments across the country are planning and announcing back-to-school scenarios for the next school year. This and the results of other Task Force studies will help guide an evidence-based return to in-person teaching.”
The research team was led by Dr. Lavoie and Dr. Mâsse, and also includes Dr. Goldfarb, Dr. Vilte Barakauskas, Dr. Julie Bettinger, Dr. Tim Oberlander, Dr. Mike Irvine and Dr. Manish Sadarangani from BC Children’s Hospital and UBC, as well as Dr. Daniel Coombs from UBC’s Department of Mathematics, Dr. Eva Oberle and Dr. Anne Gadermann from UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, Agatha Jassem from BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and Dr. Alex Choi from VCH.
BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute conducts discovery, translational and clinical research to benefit the health of children and their families. We are supported by BC Children’s Hospital Foundation; are part of BC Children’s Hospital and the Provincial Health Services Authority; and work in close partnership with the University of British Columbia. For more information, visit www.bcchr.ca or follow us on Twitter @BCCHResearch.
Vancouver Coastal Health is responsible for the delivery of $4.1 billion in community, hospital and long-term care to more than one million people in communities including Richmond, Vancouver, the North Shore, Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky corridor, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola. VCH also provides specialized care and services for people throughout BC and is the province’s hub of health care education and research.
The Vancouver School District is a large, urban and multicultural school district. It is committed to providing the highest quality learning experience for all students, helping them to reach their intellectual, social, and physical potential in a safe and inclusive environment. The District is among the most diverse public school systems in Canada with an annual enrolment of approximately 50,000 students in kindergarten to Grade 12. In addition, the District provides educational programs and services to Adult Education students.
The University of British Columbia is a global centre for research and teaching, consistently ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world. Since 1915, UBC’s entrepreneurial spirit has embraced innovation and challenged the status quo. UBC encourages its students, staff and faculty to challenge convention, lead discovery and explore new ways of learning. At UBC, bold thinking is given a place to develop into ideas that can change the world. For more, visit www.ubc.ca or follow us on Twitter @UBC.
BC Children’s Hospital, a program of the Provincial Health Services Authority, provides expert care for the province’s most seriously ill or injured children, youth and young adults, including newborns. Child and Youth Mental Health provides a diverse range of specialized and one-of-a-kind tertiary mental health and substance use services for children, adolescents and young adults across the province. For more information, visit www.bcchildrens.ca/ or follow us on Twitter @BCChildrensHosp.
The Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) plans, manages and evaluates selected specialty and province-wide health care services across BC, working with the five geographic health authorities to deliver province-wide solutions that improve the health of British Columbians. For more information, visit www.phsa.ca or follow us on Twitter @PHSAofBC.
About the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force
The Government of Canada established the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force in late April 2020. The Task Force is overseen by a Leadership 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. The Task Force and its Secretariat work closely with a range of partners, including governments, public health agencies, institutions, health organizations, research teams, other task forces, and engages communities and stakeholders. Most recently, the Task Force has been asked to support vaccine surveillance, effectiveness and safety as part of its overall objective to generate data and ideas that inform interventions aimed at slowing—and ultimately stopping—the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Canada. For more information visit: www.covid19immunitytaskforce.ca
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