While most of us are working remotely, there are still many members of the New College community who are on campus, doing the essential work to keep the college functioning. One such essential site is the front desk in Wilson Hall where many of the workers are NEW students—including Lucy Zuo, the current NCSC President. We chatted with her about what it’s like working on campus in the midst of a pandemic, how U of T’s essential workers are keeping their spirits up, and how the college is supporting this important work.

Can you tell us a bit about the work that you do at the front desk? How has your job changed with the new precautions due to COVID-19?

During the school year, the front desk casual (part-time) job typically consists of a few regular components: regulating and signing in/out New College keys; processing all the mail that comes in for New College residents, staff, and faculty; and receiving and processing maintenance service requests. Aside for that, we will also field questions throughout the day from the general public either over the desk or through the phone, usually asking for directions or more information about various New College services and facilities, and sometimes asking for support with on-site situations or emergencies, where we can direct them to the correct people.

With COVID-19 procedures and precautions, we are still doing most of the same tasks from before: keys, mail, service requests, and concerns and inquiries. However, the capacity of these tasks has certainly changed. While managing keys has become somewhat easier due to the drastically decreased traffic at New College, processing mail has become more difficult due to the fact that we are still receiving mail for residents who moved out, some of which needs to be held to be picked up in September. This added level not only includes keeping track of the letters and packages that need to be held, but also organizing and maintain a system to keep track of all the held deliveries so they end up in the hands of the right owners.

Lastly, during the summer, New College Residences is typically open to the public for short-term or long-term stays, run by the Summer Residence Office. However, obviously, this summer, the residence is not open to the public. So what is usually is a bustling front desk space is much quieter this summer.

It must be a very different experience right now compared to the usual hustle and bustle at NEW. How is the mood on campus?

When the university first closed in March, the mood was quite different from how it is now. A few months ago, the sudden change with new social distancing measures caught most everyone on campus off guard and the effects were really noticeable. A lot of students were scared and unsure, and with good reason, while staff members were trying to figure out how to continue supporting students while faced with the prospect of working from home sooner than they’d anticipated. This, along with the lasting cold and cloudy weather, made for quite a somber atmosphere.

Now, as we’re swiftly moving into the summer months, although each entity on campus still feels quite isolated, the warm weather has brought somewhat better spirits. As people began getting more used to COVID-19 protocols, there’s some type of normalcy returning to campus—normalcy without the normal folks. Although we are all going about our days with more caution than before, I think the people who still remain on campus are doing an admirable job of bringing back as much routine and normalcy as is possible during this time. I also think that people seem more appreciative of the moments of liveliness now than before COVID-19, perhaps taking them less for granted now.

What do you do to keep your spirits up when things get difficult?

Now that we are spending so much time alone or with the same people, I think that people are relying a lot more on the moments of camaraderie than before, and it’s no different for me. I’ve been really valuing the moments of connection that I’ve been able to have with various people in my life, and that’s certainly been keeping my spirits up. At this point, we’re all connected by common restrictions, and that’s allowed me to lean on and relate to others in a way I wasn’t necessarily able to before. And I think that these little things I’ve learned about connecting with friends from a distance in new and creative ways will stay with me as COVID-19 fades.

How is the college supporting you and ensuring you feel safe and protected at your job?

At the desk, there is a screen and barrier set up between the desk and the lobby, which limits communication a bit, but definitely helps us feel safer coming to work every day. In addition, because we typically touch a lot of high-contact items (TCards, keys, mail, etc.) during our day-to-day work, we’ve been provided with gloves, cleaning liquid, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer (which is also located all around the college), which has been helping us keep our work more safe and sanitary.

One of the main ways the college has been supporting its essential workers is with meals. Both the Front Desk and Caretaking staff have been provided with boxed breakfast and lunch meals from the dining hall, which means that we have to bring our own meals less often. It might seem small, but it really is one less thing to worry about during these kinds of stressful times.

Are there any other essential workers at NEW you want to give a shout out to?

At the desk, the full-time staff members have always been quite supportive of the casual staff, but I’ve been particularly appreciative of them during this lockdown. They’ve worked hard to navigate the challenges that COVID-19 brought and have continued to be patient and understanding with the student staff. Our overnight steward, Christine, recently handmade the Front Desk staff the cloth masks from the photo, and it was so appreciated.

Additionally, while the New College Caretaking staff has similarly always shown the desk warmth and friendliness, they’ve really been watching out for us since the beginning of the lockdown. They bring us our meals from the dining hall, cleaning supplies when we run out, and sometimes even stop to chat.

They, along with the dining hall staff, have not only kept New College clean and safe, but have really kept up New College’s sense of liveliness.

Speaking of the dining hall staff, I would be remiss to not give them a shout-out. I’ve lived in residence for the two years I’ve been at UofT, and after the university closed, I was still on residence until the end of April. A lot of days, the cafeteria staff were some of the only people I saw, but they always greeted me with exuberance, and that hasn’t changed. And of course, they are the ones making and serving the meals being provided to us.

The summer New College Dons have also been really nice to see around. I know most all of them from the school year, but they’ve also been providing a lovely spirit to New, and I know they’re doing their absolute best to support residents in creative ways while navigating the unique challenges we’re all facing right now.

Lastly, just a shout-out to the other Front Desk casual staff members. It’s not easy to be a working student or recent graduate right now, but they are handling it with grace and resilience, and I’m really grateful to be able to call them coworkers.