Meet The Students Working The COVID-19 Frontlines

A graphic of a clipboard with a checklist
Illustration by Jessalyn George

While everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in some capacity, students have undoubtedly been experiencing some unique challenges. 

From cancelled graduation ceremonies to classes being moved online, the pandemic has erected new hurdles for many post-secondary students.

This May, a month when students typically begin preparing for their summer jobs, the Canadian youth unemployment rate was at 29.4 per cent, compared to a low of 10.3 per cent  in February, according to Statistics Canada.

Though the lack of employment opportunities left many students jobless, some took the opportunity to step onto the COVID-19 frontlines.

Three students who have been working pandemic-related jobs this past summer shared their experiences.

Emma Tremblay 

Emma Tremblay via Instagram

Prior to the pandemic, Emma Tremblay had plans to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary in the GTA during the summer months of 2020. The absence of non-essential medical services at the beginning of the pandemic, however, meant that she would not be able to receive the rabies vaccination needed for that type of position. 

Tremblay, a third-year animal biology student at the University of Guelph, chose to return to her hometown of Timmins, Ont. instead. In August, she began working as a screener at the Timmins and District Hospital. 

During shifts that lasted between eight to 12 hours, Tremblay screened hospital staff, patients and visitors for any COVID-19 symptoms. 

“It’s a pretty fun job,” she says. “You get to be social and involved with the community… and that’s something I really enjoy.” 

Though she rarely felt unnerved by the virus itself, Tremblay notes that her biggest concern was typically visitors or people coming into the hospital for appointments unrelated to COVID-19. 

“I feel more unsafe when people are screaming and yelling and threatening to sue me,” she explains. 

She recalls one instance where a person who was accompanying a patient refused to let the patient wear a mask or face shield. A hospital staff member in full personal protective equipment (PPE) had to accompany the maskless patient through the hospital to ensure that they didn’t go anywhere they weren’t supposed to be.

“It felt like the Monster’s Inc. scene when the guy has a sock on his back,” she says. “It definitely gives off a weird vibe.” 

Claire Christoff 

Claire Christoff. (Photo Courtesy of Claire Christoff)

Claire Christoff, from Burlington, Ont., had the unique perspective of moving provinces in the midst of the pandemic. Christoff moved to the Yukon in August after COVID-19 put her previous work plans after high school on hold.

There have only been 23 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Yukon, making the situation there drastically different from Ontario’s. 

Christoff notes that there is a noticeable difference between the heavy lockdown in Ontario and the atmosphere in the Yukon.

Other than social distancing signs that ask residents to stay ‘one caribou’ or ‘six crows’ apart, Christoff says that life up North feels fairly normal. Restaurants are open, kids are in school and Christoff is taking dance and karate classes.

Social distancing sign posted in the Yukon, photo via The Guardian 

This sense of security, however, is something that Christoff has noticed is taken for granted.

“I think that [people in the Yukon] take [COVID-19] seriously as a virus, but they don’t see it as an issue that affects us,” she says.  

Christoff has observed this mentality through her role as a screening officer at the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport during the summer, as well as being a screener at a flu vaccine clinic. 

Working these COVID-19 jobs ended up being beneficial for Christoff, who says it’s given her a “greater appreciation for how serious the virus is.”

“It’s a time when a lot of us feel powerless and scared and anxious, and it just feels good to know that the part I’m doing is helping to protect the population… It just feels good in the soul.” 

Emma Meriano 

Emma Meriano. (Photo Courtesy of Emma Meriano)

Emma Meriano, who graduated from Western University’s media, information and technoculture program in the spring of 2020, worked as a COVID-19 screener at a fertility clinic in Toronto.

She had planned to take the year off to travel after graduation, but ended up staying in Ontario as the COVID-19 cases rose.

Meriano wore full PPE, including scrubs, foot covers and a mask, ensuring that she never felt physically at risk of contracting the virus at work.

According to Meriano, many patients became difficult to deal with and the job became “draining” by the end.

She believes that for many patients, visits to the clinic were their “first time leaving the house in months.” This led to agitated and frustrated patients.

Despite this, she says the position was worthwhile. She remembers how she would often only see healthcare workers outside during the day, as opposed to the normal crowds of Toronto.

“It helped me deal with the COVID thing a lot because it really gave me a perspective of empathy towards everyone who is still working. I was really proud of my job.”