MONTREAL -- A big question from the COVID-19 pandemic is: what impact will it have on children?

That's what the Observatory for children's health and education (OPES), with the CHU Sainte-Justine, wants to uncover, with $5 million in funding from the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ).

While it may seem like the health crisis is coming to an end, thanks to the province's robust vaccination campaign, researchers insist the last 18 months won't just be a bad memory, left in the past.

"We've never been very worried about the health of young people," said Sylvana Côté, a researcher with CHU Sainte-Justine and professor at Université de Montréal's school of public health. "But we can't assume that three months of lost school time in 2020...and one to seven class closures in 2020 have not affected the children. There will be consequences of this and they will not be the same for everyone, that's clear."

Côté will lead a research project based on four main areas: mental health and wellbeing; education (the impact on learning); infection, immunity and transmission; and healthy lifestyle habits (diet, sleep, substance abuse, screens, etc.).

Two cross-cutting themes will focus on the economic impact of the crisis, such as loss of workforce training and social innovation -- what can be done to mitigate the impacts of the crisis.

School closures and disruption of school rhythms will have varying degrees of impact depending on a child's previous educational and psychosocial trajectory, as well as the extent of personal and family stress they experienced, Côté states.

"The pandemic disproportionately affects children from visible minorities and economically disadvantaged families," she notes.

"Where are the impacts? Who is experiencing less stress and who is facing more disruptions? What do we need to do to make sure we don't have people dropping out? Some young people will stay on, some are doing very well, (...) but there are some for whom it has been more difficult and it won't necessarily go away easily for everyone."

Funding from the FRQ will allow various academic partners with the Observatory to carry out different research projects.

The OPES will contribute "standardized assessments to come to a conclusion and identify where the needs are," Côté added.

"The data we currently have reflects only the situation of children who were able or willing to speak," she said. "We don't know anything about the smallest children, who were not able to speak, or those who are 'so bad' that they didn't want to speak."

She adds researchers will look at regional, national and international data to be able to see things a little more clearly.

"It will be very interesting to see the extent certain measures have had, if some worked better or worse," Côté concluded. "We have always been on a kind of pendulum swing when it comes to the wellbeing of children, their learning, their safety, the safety of their families... These have always been very difficult choices. For the moment, the repercussions of these choices are entirely empirical questioning."

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on June 14, 2021.