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What's up with packing up: Students to be reunited with belongings at last

Each Duke dorm room comes with a bed frame, a mattress, drawers, a desk and a chair. Only God knows what else ends up in there. Soon, professional movers will too.

On Monday, Duke-contracted movers began packing up items belonging to students who chose to have their belongings stored or shipped to them, left behind after the coronavirus outbreak abruptly closed undergraduate dorms to most students. Students also had the option to sign up to move out themselves. 

Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life, told the Chronicle that HRL estimates 4,200 students have yet to move out after residential coordinators went room by room to check. 

“I think it’s a huge challenge, but we are really confident that the processes we’ve developed will address it,” Gonzalez said. 

Months without belongings

Many Duke students have been separated from their things—clothes, art, technology and more—since March. That month, volunteers responded to more than 1,000 student requests for shipments of essential belongings, but items like clothing and musical instruments didn’t make the cut for emergency shipping.

Senior Spencer Ganus said that after she returned to her hometown of Los Angeles after spring break, she couldn’t get to most of her stuff, which was back in Durham. The University shipped her some essentials, like school books and notes, but everything else was left in her room. 

“Almost all of my clothes… my passport… random things like makeup and colored pens. Creative things, non-essential stuff that I wish I had,” Ganus said. 

Ganus said that she’s privileged to still be able to borrow or buy clothes to cover what she is missing, but still feels anxious about the situation. She wishes she were able to go and pack up the room herself. 

Gonzalez said he noticed a wave of students moving out after dorms first closed during spring break. Since then, his office has continued to receive—and reject—student move-out requests. Now, those who need their belongings will finally be able to get them. 

Pack, ship and store 

After vetting several companies, Duke settled on two companies to handle students’ items. Both companies—TSI for East campus and Handled for West campus—will manage all aspects of the process: packing, then storage or shipping.  

Packing and storage will be free, and graduating seniors can have up to 15 boxes shipped without charge. Returning students can have up to four boxes shipped for free. Additional boxes will cost between $30 and $80 based on destination, Gonzalez said.

“We felt that four boxes was a healthy opportunity for students to get most of what matters most back into their hands,” Gonzalez said.

The moving companies won’t be able to deconstruct items such as Ikea furniture, and students will have to pay for items that don’t fit into boxes to be shipped to them. Those unwieldy things could also be put into storage, which will be provided at least until the Fall 2020 semester begins—and could be extended if the coronavirus affects on-campus living. 

While movers take down dorms room by room, packing appointments will not be scheduled for exact times.

Students will be able to video call in to communicate with movers as they pack up rooms. Gonzalez wrote in an email that movers will stay on the line as long as students want. 

TSI’s website shows video calls will last 15 minutes, and a packing reservation confirmation email shows Handled will limit calls to only five minutes. Ganus said she had initially expected movers to chat with students through the entirety of the move-out, and she hoped they would do so to ensure they treat her belongings with proper care.

However, Gonzalez wrote that the companies agreed to extend their video calls. He noted that so far, most students only want to stay on the line for five to 10 minutes. 

TSI CEO Chris Smith said that for all schools, the 15-minute timeframe listed on the company's website is intended to set expectations, but that the company is "not going to throw a student or a parent off at the 16th minute." He said calls tend to last eight to 10 minutes.

Handled Strategic Partnership Manager Jake Hurrell confirmed in an interview that Handled agreed to extend their five-minute time limit for Duke students. He said a lot of students opt out of the video call option altogether, but a lot appreciate it as a way to keep their belongings safe.

Ganus added that the uncertainty of when movers might process her room means she may have to wake up at 5 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time to look out for their call. Movers will be tackling one dorm hall at a time, and students cannot schedule exact packing appointments. 

Gonzalez wants students to take HRL up on the offer of professional moving. 

“We’re hoping that at least 3,000 students sign up for it,” Gonzalez said. More than 200 students filed for the option in its first hour of registration, which opened May 11. Move-outs were scheduled to begin Monday, and registration ends Friday. 

Students with items in their room that violate HRL policy might not face punishment if the items are found during the professional-move-out process. 

“Unless it's a really serious transgression, it's not something that is going to be addressed,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said alcohol would be discarded, but declined to comment on how items generally considered more serious, such as marijuana or bongs, might be handled. HRL has not considered what punishments students that commit “serious transgressions” might face, he said. 

“Generally, alleged violations of University policy will not be documented or referred to the Office of Student Conduct,” HRL’s Spring 2020 move-out FAQ page states. “If there is a concern for immediate safety or a significant violation of University policy or law is discovered, the matter may be referred.”

Still, some items students don’t want movers handling aren’t illegal, but just weird. 

The only thing left in senior Ahmad Amireh’s room is a Red Mango sign. Amireh estimates the sign is 11 feet long, two feet tall and weighs “at least 100 pounds.”

He said his resident assistant dropped a plate of cookies in shock upon first seeing the sign, and can’t imagine what movers would think upon witnessing the signature piece. So he’ll be using the self-move out option.

“If anybody is going to be the person to open my door and make sure it’s okay, it’s going to be me,” said Amireh, who is working on a plan to fit the sign into his Ford Focus. 

Self-move-out 

Duke students will also have the option to pack up their dorms themselves, but that option isn’t suggested for everyone, Gonzalez said. 

“Proximity is the strongest factor” for which students might be best-suited to return to campus, he said. “We really do encourage students to strongly consider the pack-and-ship option just because there’s more certainty in it.”

To use the self-move-out option, students will need to make a reservation on the housing portal. Move-out times will be limited to three-hour windows. Students will be allowed to designate others to move out for them and may bring two people to help them pack up. 

Self-move-outs are set to take place in June, but reservations could be affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Gonzalez said. Masks and social distancing will be required during self-move-out periods, and the number of students simultaneously moving out of dorms will be limited. 

“We’re really trying to do our best to make sure the volume on any given date is kept at a certain level or below,” Gonzalez said, noting approved students will be given temporary access cards. 

Students will not be able to combine the professional-packing and self-move-out options. Those with items left behind after both processes have been completed will be contacted by HRL. If contact cannot be made, Gonzalez said, items will ultimately be discarded or donated. Donation avenues will be available to students using both options.

Those who choose the professional service will be welcoming into their room guests they surely didn’t expect when they left for spring break. Gonzalez, who has seen plenty of dorm rooms in his HRL career, knows they fall across a spectrum of survivability. 

“Some rooms are immaculate, just how organized and clean and well-put-together they are,” he said. “Other rooms, sometimes you wonder how someone lives there.” 

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that TSI and Handled will not limit the length of video calls with students during the move-out process. 

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