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What happens to all the stuff left in college dorm rooms after the coronavirus surge?

Boston University, UMass Amherst helping students reclaim belongings

A student's suitcase was covered in plastic as some of the last students moved out of Boston University's Warren Towers in March.
A student's suitcase was covered in plastic as some of the last students moved out of Boston University's Warren Towers in March.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Anika Utke, a rising senior at Boston University, misses her stuff.

She is self-isolating at her family’s Seattle home with the few belongings she brought back for spring break — some clothing, a phone charger, toiletries, and little else. The rest remains in her dorm, where it has been since the pandemic closed colleges nationwide. Unsure of when she can return to Boston, she gave BU permission to box up and store her things last week.

“I was pretty minimalist in my packing when I came home for spring break,” Utke said. “That’s my biggest regret now.”

Most Massachusetts colleges instructed students to clear out of on-campus housing quickly in March. But residents at a few select schools, including BU and University of Massachusetts Amherst, were on break when the number of coronavirus cases surged. So administrators told them not to return to campus.

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As a result, thousands of dorm rooms in the state are still full.

These students long for simple things left behind, like video game consoles, wall decor, and warm weather clothes. Others are separated from necessary medical supplies and academic materials. Now, weeks after the academic year ended, both schools are trying to reunite students with their belongings safely.

For BU and UMass Amherst, the process is “a massive undertaking,” BU spokesman Colin Riley said in an e-mail. Packing up countless lives during a health crisis is proving to be complicated and expensive.

Boston University has offered to ship or store the items in its 7,062 rooms at no cost to students. The more than 5,000 BU students who live within 250 miles from campus also have the choice to pick up their things beginning June 1.

UMass Amherst, which houses more than half its 22,000 undergraduates, is implementing this option on a larger scale. Most students will return to campus between May 18-22 to empty their dorms during two-hour time slots.

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“We have been keeping public health in mind first and foremost, and we have developed a process that adheres to that approach,” said UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

UMass senior Jesse Chisholm said that she, like most students, is delighted to gather her things.

“It’s been a very slow process because the date kept getting pushed back as the stay-at-home orders were extended,” said Chisholm, who lives in North Andover. “I’m glad it’s happening.”

Still, some students from both schools have voiced safety concerns about on-site pickup plans. The universities have mandated masks, vowed to provide hand sanitizer, and planned to wipe down shared surfaces. To limit the crowd, students have made reservations to enter the rooms and agreed to only bring along one person. But families, who will be setting foot on campus days after stringent distancing measures are expected to be lifted in Massachusetts, are still nervous.

Jacquelyn Dirschel, a UMass Amherst rising junior from North Attleborough, said her school’s pick-up process should be expanded over weeks instead of days.

“Our classes are over, so why not extend that over a few weeks?'' said Dirschel, who is assigned a slot this Friday to move out. "That way, everyone can separate more, and be safe.”

For students shipping or storing belongings, there are worries of things being damaged or lost. Residents often share larger belongings and spread things throughout the room, rather than staying on their designated side.

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Boston University will ask residents to identify their possessions in photos to combat this problem.

Another cohort at BU has also spoken out about how the college’s plan excludes the needs of international students. Under the current directive, BU students from outside the United States can either store their things or have them sent to a “proxy address” in the country, but they cannot have them shipped to international addresses. In an e-mail to students, BU said “international shipping is not available due to governmental restrictions.”

Ariane Vigna, a rising BU junior from France, published a petition to change the policy that garnered more than 550 signatures.

“We went on break not knowing there was a risk of borders being closed,” she said. “We don’t know when we will be allowed back.”

In the end, college students recognize that gathering their belongings is a trivial item on universities’ coronavirus to-do lists. Colleges are in a critical period where they are deliberating public health issues, finances, and the fate of the fall semester.

Yet in a time when students are separated from their campuses and friends, knowing their things are safe is important, Utke said.

“I know there are a million other important things to consider in the world,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about my clothes and hard drive and all in Boston.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.