Teachers not at elevated risk from Covid-19, study finds

Risk of hospital admission halved during school closures, study published in BMJ finds

A teacher with a protective mask distributes documents to pupils in a  school in Rennes, western France. Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images

A teacher with a protective mask distributes documents to pupils in a school in Rennes, western France. Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images

 

Teachers are at no more risk of being hospitalised with Covid-19 or suffering severe illness than any other working-age adults, a new study has found.

While many Irish teachers will begin the new term with a degree of anxiety, research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) plays down their risk.

It found neither school staff nor their household members were at any increased risk of severe outcomes at any time during the 2020-2021 academic year.

The findings, which focused on the experience in Scotland, included an analysis of periods when schools were fully open.

Researchers at Public Health Scotland and four Scottish universities compared the risk of Covid-19 among teachers and their household members with healthcare workers and adults of working age among the general population, based on available data from March 2020 to July 2021. Most were young, with an average age of 42. Eighty per cent were women, and 84 per cent had no existing medical conditions.

“It is not possible to say from this study why teachers are not at higher risk than the average working-age adult,” a summary of the paper said. “It could be that schools are not – [when] compared to the ‘average’ occupational setting – a high-risk environment.

“It is also possible that teachers are not at higher risk because they are generally healthier or more careful about Covid-19 related behaviours than other occupational groups, although attempts were made to account for such differences in the study.”

During the period of analysis, the overall risk of hospital admission remained less than 1 per cent for teaching staff, healthcare workers, and adults of working age in the general population.

School closures

After adjusting for factors such as age, sex, ethnicity and deprivation, the results show that in the initial period of school closure during the spring and summer of 2020, the risk of hospital admission was about 50 per cent lower in teachers and their household members than in the general population. It was the same in the second period of closure later in the year.

During the same period, the risk was almost four times higher in patient-facing healthcare workers and almost twice as high in their household members.

However, in the first period of full school opening in autumn, the risk of hospitalisation for teachers increased about 2.4 fold, similar to that of the general population. During reopening in the summer of 2021, with vaccinations underway, an increased risk of 1.7 fold was recorded.

“This is an observational study, so can’t establish cause, and the researchers point to some limitations, such as being unable to link a small number of teachers to healthcare records and a lack of detailed information on factors such as class size and control measures within individual schools.”

However, it said, the study was based on a large, almost complete sample of teachers and their household members, allowing for valid comparisons across different occupational groups, and “suggesting that the results withstand scrutiny”.