With courses moving online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, college students across the country had to leave their on-campus housing to minimize the risk of exposure and spread of the virus. After the decision was made to fully transition to distance learning for the rest of the spring semester, University of Maryland, Baltimore County students found themselves stuck at home while their belongings were left on-campus.
“Our expertise is how to move students in and out. In student housing, we do that all the time,” said John Fox, the Director of Residential Life. “But in the context of [the coronavirus], how do we effectively … move out nearly four thousand students without compromising safety?”
To answer this question, Residential Life worked in consultation with other members of the UMBC community to come up with a move-out process that addressed the associated health risks. This collaboration included the Incident Management Team, who convened under UMBC’s Emergency Response Plan specifically to address coronavirus related issues. Residential Life then created a plan for students to move out all of their belongings that remained in their dorms, which was communicated to students through an email on Mar. 25. Student residents were asked to schedule a two-hour long appointment within a two-week window to return to campus to collect their possessions. Residents were permitted to bring one other person to assist them and could not be in the dorm at the same time as their roommates. The plan was designed to minimize the number of people on campus at the same time and to promote social distancing.
About half of all residents were signed up to move out when the process came to a halt after Governor Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order on Mar. 30, requiring Marylanders to only leave their homes for essential reasons. According to Marie Lilly, the director of Community Engagement at UMBC, the university made a decision at the institutional level that individual students with extenuating circumstances could proceed in the move-out process “but the large scale movement of people was in no way keeping with the spirit particularly at the beginning of the stay at home order.” All scheduled appointments were canceled, and move out was postponed without a definitive date.
“We are not going to move forward without either the [stay-at-home order] lifting or more explicit guidance from the state [or] the university system,” Lilly said.
Several other universities in the University System of Maryland had residents move completely out of their on-campus housing before the stay at home order was in effect. Towson University has utilized an alternative method of emptying dorms and apartments by partnering with an outside moving company. Movers equipped with gloves and masks meet with Towson residents through Zoom video conferences as they pack up their remaining belongings, which are later shipped to the students’ home addresses.
“We have actually heard from some students who were anxious about a moving company coming in and touching their stuff because they heard Towson did it … which we totally get,” Lilly said. “Right now, we are looking at all the options and we anticipate an ultimate plan having multiple options but we are not ready to say yet that we definitely will offer movers.”
Although nothing is confirmed, Residential Life is considering the best ways to accommodate students who have concerns about coming back to campus like people whose home address is far away or the potential risks for immunocompromised family members, according to John Fox.
“We know that not everyone will be able to sign up for a time and arrive within a certain window so our goal is to have multiple options so people can determine what works best for them,” Fox said.
There are currently about 70 students who are still living on campus. They were approved by Residential Life to remain in their spring housing assignments for the rest of the semester due to extraneous circumstances. Several of the students are international, come from out of state or have some sort of personal home situation that makes it difficult to return to their home addresses. The buildings that have remained ‘open’ for these individual students are all the apartment complexes, as well as limited spaces within Harbor Hall and Potomac Hall. Residential Life was potentially going to consolidate some of the remaining students together, particularly for residents living in Harbor Hall and Potomac Hall who do not have access to individual kitchens. However, that would be dependent on moving other students out so at this time no action towards consolidation has occurred.
The residential buildings that are still housing students are cleaned daily by ABM Industries Inc, the contracted facilities management company that cleans all of UMBC’s buildings. At the beginning of March, ABM integrated Virex TB, a cleaning product designed to target viruses like influenza, to their regular cleaning solutions to disinfect frequent contact spots such as doorknobs or counters. Common areas like study spaces and restrooms have been disinfected in all the residential buildings in preparation for when students come back on campus to move out. Rooms that are currently unoccupied have been routinely checked for “environmental conditions such as humidity, leaks, and temperature,” according to an email sent to residents on April 6. Rooms have also had trash thrown out, refrigerators, showers, toilets and sinks cleaned, as well as floor vacuumed with the promise that students’ possessions would be disrupted as little as possible.
Residential Life plans on updating students at the end of April on the status of the move-out process. “Much like everyone else, our information is constantly evolving and we are making the best decisions with the information we have,” Fox said.