The Current

High school grads face uncertain future as they prepare for university amid pandemic

A month from now — in normal times — university and college dorms would be filling up with students, but high school graduates are facing a number of unknowns as they prepare to attend their first year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

'I did a couple of times think 'would this be a danger to myself or others?' grad Brianna Burke says

High school graduates from Windsor Secondary in Vancouver take part in a physically-distanced graduation parade in June. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
Listen18:54

Read story transcript

A month from now — in normal times — university and college dorms would be filling up with students, but high school graduates are facing a number of unknowns as they prepare to attend their first year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Brianna Burke, who is attending McKendree University in Illinois to play hockey and study English, said she'd be "lying" if the thought of deferring for a year and not attending university in the fall hadn't crossed her mind. 

As of Aug. 3, Illinois had 184,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 7,700 deaths. Burke, who is from Fort McMurray, Alta., said that while the rising numbers do concern her, as long as she follows the "proper health and safety measures" to the best of her ability then she'll be safe. 

"I did a couple of times think 'would this be a danger to myself or others?' But then again, I thought 'as long as I stay safe and I follow the guidelines put in place by both the hockey program and the school itself, then I should be OK,' " Burke told The Current guest host Mark Kelley. 

Some precautions her university is taking include a shifting schedule of both online and in-person classes and mandatory mask wearing across the school, however, she added that she still wasn't sure how safety guidelines would be implemented for hockey. 

"[My parents] do have their concerns, just because I am their first child going off to university in the middle of a pandemic. So no doubt they will have their worries. 

"But I know that they have a lot of trust in me and that I take the proper measures to protect myself and others. I know I will be surrounded by some really good people, so that helps ease their worries a bit, too." 

WATCH | Fall classes will be online for 2 Quebec universities:

McGill University and the University of Montreal have informed staff and students that most courses for the fall semester will move online.  2:08

Burke also already has experience dealing with challenging circumstances — when she was in Grade 8, she lived through the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire.

"I guess that prepared me for the pandemic by [teaching me to] adapt to all these moving pieces and just knowing that the situation is out of [my] control and that there isn't much you can do about it except doing your part to keep yourself and others safe."

'I want to get cracking'

Scott Sharma, who is heading to Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Que., also thought about delaying university during the pandemic. But going on to higher education was something he'd always wanted to do and COVID-19 wasn't going to stop that. 

"Even before the pandemic, I was starting to look at universities and getting geared up to move out of the house. And pretty much what made me decide was the fact that the program I'm going into is five years and I want to get cracking," Sharma told Kelley. 

Sharma says he doesn't shy away from a challenge. The 18 year old lobbied for non-binary washrooms in his Ottawa high school, and by the time he graduated last month, they had three. The endeavour eventually turned into a non-profit organization called Safe.

"There is a rainbow club at Bishop's … does the pandemic affect it? Absolutely. We are not having the same encounters that we used to have and life is just in general different now. So I think all that's a bit up in the air," he said.  

But he remains optimistic about the future and added that he hopes schools continue with certain adaptations they've made due to the pandemic, such as increased digital outreach. 

There were "obvious" drawbacks to the crisis, too, he said. 

"We missed out on our final senior year [rugby] season. And for me, missing those little traditions like prom, the end of the year assembly and book signing ... has definitely been a downside."   


Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Joana Draghici. 

now