Workers Health & Safety Centre

Educators lack protection in-class and support online, studies find

Ontario educators suffer anxiety from a lack of COVID safety protocols in the classroom but teaching online creates even more stress new research finds.

Educators have worked on the pandemic frontlines from day one but until now few studies have examined how evolving teaching conditions impact their health and safety. Much attention has focused on the well-being of students and their families who struggled with the shift from in-person to online learning, but little attention has been paid to educators.

Two recent peer-reviewed studies by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) shed light on the impacts of COVID upon educators. A lack of workplace protective measures and support for those teaching online have taken a huge toll on educators’ mental and physical health. Poor working conditions are also poor learning conditions.

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Online teaching = poor working & learning conditions

The studies drew on a survey developed by OHCOW in collaboration with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. It sought feedback from educators on their mental health, the impact of online teaching on their working conditions. Additionally, they asked how well personal protective equipment and infection control practices worked. In total, 5,438 educators completed the survey in November and December 2020 after schools had reopened for in-person instruction.

For the first study researchers adapted a psychosocial work environment survey to compare the experience of educators who taught in-person to those who taught online. While most survey respondents taught in person (87 per cent) those who taught online mostly did so from their home (68 per cent) vs a school site (29 per cent).

Educators who taught online reported poorer psychosocial working conditions including:

✅ Greater work pace
✅ More role conflicts
✅ Less support from supervisors and co-workers
✅ Lower job predictability.

Those teaching online were more likely to be younger, racialized and have shorter job tenure. However, whether teaching in-person or online, all educators reported high levels of burnout and sleep trouble, about four times higher than estimates of the Canadian workforce before the pandemic.

Classrooms lack COVID precautions

For the second study, researchers examined educators’ perceived adequacy of COVID precautions in place, specifically personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection control procedures (ICP) and their impact on worker mental health. Almost 5,000 educators (4,947) who taught onsite during the workweek were surveyed.

Educators who taught in physical classrooms reported COVID precautions were often lacking:
  • Two-thirds said less than half of necessary infection control practices were in place (e.g., physical barriers, physical distancing, screening of students and visitors, cohorting of students and student masking)
  • One in six said their PPE needs were not met
  • One in four reported they lacked soap and running water for handwashing
  • Educators with fewer COVID protections were three times more likely to report moderate or severe anxiety.

The study authors conclude, “Findings highlight the importance of adequate administrative and engineering controls in schools, not just to minimise risk of infection, but also for educator’s mental health.” They also note that Ontario elementary and secondary schools applied different COVID-19 controls. Most secondary students were required to wear masks, did not eat lunch at school and needed less supervision and instruction on hand hygiene than elementary school students.

The research reflects the findings of previous studies by OHCOW and IWH conducted among healthcare workers and non-healthcare workers during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those studies found that adequate workplace COVID precautions not only help to prevent virus transmission, but they were associated with improved worker mental health too.

Research Resources

Study of educators during pandemic found psychosocial conditions worse for those teaching online
The psychosocial work environment among educators during the COVID-19 pandemic
Perceived adequacy of infection control practices and symptoms of anxiety amongst in-person elementary school educators in Ontario
Workers’ mental health linked with COVID protection in new study

Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) offers training to promote workplace mental health as well as a range of training programs and information services to help prepare all workplace parties to play an informed role in pursuit of safer, healthier work. This includes mandatory and Chief Prevention Officer (CPO)-approved Certification Training for joint health and safety committee members along with similar training for worker health and safety representatives in smaller workplaces. Scheduled training options also include CPO- approved Working at Heights training and WAH Refresher training too.
WHSC Supervisor Health & Safety Training also helps employers and supervisors meet and exceed awareness and competency requirements critical to their significant obligation to protect workers.   

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