City partners with U of T, other local colleges and universities on COVID-19 research

Toronto skyline with u of t campus in the foreground
(photo by U of T Communications)

The City of Toronto is tapping local universities and colleges for essential research support as it responds to the ongoing pandemic and looks ahead to the region’s recovery.

Along with federal and provincial partners, the city this week announced a new, long-term partnership model with eight Toronto universities and colleges – including the University of Toronto – to lead research related to the pandemic.

In U of T’s case, that includes examining low-income communities’ access to the internet, necessary for online schooling and to receive essential services, and COVID-19’s impact on air quality.

“We welcome the City of Toronto’s collaborative approach to these pressing issues,” U of T President Meric Gertler said in a statement. “The University of Toronto is very pleased to contribute to this initiative, applying our research, leveraging our expertise, and harnessing the creativity of our faculty, staff and students to tackle some of the city’s biggest challenges.

“Strong universities support strong cities, and vice versa.”

The partnership comes as the city faces a second wave of COVID-19 and the province posts record-high daily case numbers. It creates a new avenue for faculty and students to become involved in COVID-19 research and allows the city to leverage world-leading expertise at Toronto’s universities and colleges. Research funding will be provided by the city and Mitacs, a national, non-profit research organization that fosters growth and innovation.

Eight projects have been announced to date, with more to follow. They will be completed between December 2020 and September of next year.

U of T will be working with Ryerson University on a study of how COVID-19 has affected air pollution, with changes in transportation patterns, energy use and employment and industrial operations before, during and after the pandemic. The researchers include Greg Evans, a professor in U of T’s department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, and Matthew Adams, an assistant professor in the department of geography, geomatics and environment at U of T Mississauga. Through Mitacs internships, graduate students will have an opportunity to get involved with the study.

U of T will also be partnering with three other colleges and universities on a study of Toronto’s “digital divide,” referring to a lack of access to the internet among low-income communities. The researchers include Associate Professor Leslie Chan of U of T Scarborough’s Centre for Critical Development Studies and Assistant Professor Paolo Granata of St. Michael’s College and the School of Cities. Using surveys and data analysis, the researchers aim to help the city better understand who is under-served by digital infrastructure – and why – in an effort to guide policy recommendations.

Toronto mayor and U of T alumnus John Tory said he was pleased that local universities and colleges answered the call to help the city address important research questions about how the pandemic is affecting the city and its residents.

“This pilot is a good example of all three levels of government and Toronto (Higher Education Institutions] working together to achieve mutual beneficial goals towards the rebuilding and recovery efforts once the pandemic is over,” he said in a statement. “Thank you to all the partners who came together to achieve this new model, and to the federal and provincial governments for helping to fund the research projects through research funder Mitacs.”

The research projects build on prior agreements between the City of Toronto and post-secondary institutions in the GTA to develop opportunities for collaboration and exchange.

“It is heartening to see so many higher education institutions partnering with government to delve into some of today’s biggest challenges,” Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and industry, said in a statement.