After spring exodus, students and staff scramble to account for belongings left behind

By Anthony Sjodin and Katie Futterman

Staff relocated students’ belongings several times throughout the spring and summer, but some students returned to find items had not made it to their new rooms. (Sarah Fagan)

In the weeks before students returned to campus, staff members from dining halls, the mail center and facilities moved thousands of boxes that were left in dorm rooms when Middlebury evacuated students last March. 

The abrupt departure in the spring sent students scrambling to schedule flights home and pack up their belongings, with little idea of when campus would reopen. When the college decided to finish the semester remotely, residential halls remained filled with boxed belongings that needed to be moved before new students arrived for the fall semester. 

The college announced plans to reopen for the fall semester on June 22, with the first round of the delayed room draw scheduled for late July and the second occurring in August. Because most students received room assignments less than a month before moving in, staff had only a few weeks to move items from hundreds of rooms to students’ new residences. 

“At one point, we had six teams of four moving student belongings. We just needed more time before students got here,” Jodie Keith, manager of custodial and support services, said. “Three weeks before the first students were scheduled to arrive, we got the list, and we started moving boxes then.”

Staff had already shuffled boxes around in the spring, as the college consolidated housing for students who remained on campus. Middlebury had designated several residential houses for temporary use by Porter Medical Center employees and prepared others in case the town needed them during the spring, according to Keith. 

“It’s hard to say how many boxes we moved, but I would say on average there were probably 20 boxes per room, and kids did not take many things with them,” Keith said.

Seniors and other students not returning to campus for the fall were allowed back to pick up their belongings in late July. Some spaces, like the Atwater Suites, had many unlabeled items that staff had to move.

“We also brought over all the items that were left in common areas in the suites,” Keith said “There was a lot of furniture and just random things left in there, so we bagged it all up and took it to Nelson and labeled it.”

As the college adjusted housing plans, staff had to move many belongings multiple times. 

“The biggest challenge was students who switched rooms — and I know they tried to minimize it because we were moving belongings and things — but they were also trying to keep students separated and use as few doubles and triples as possible,” Keith said. 

Keith explained that sometimes staff would deliver a student’s items, then get a new list indicating that the student was living somewhere else, and they would need to return and move the items to a new location.

Most students packed up their items and labeled boxes clearly when they left, but staff had to guess for those that did not. Some items, such as rugs and mattresses, may have had tags fall off in transit and appeared unlabeled, according to Keith.

 “When we loaded the trucks, we didn’t just load one room, we loaded five or six rooms. So when we got to a location and there wasn’t a tag on [an item], we tried to make our best guess on which student it belonged to,” Keith said. 

As students moved into their dorms this fall, some were greeted by empty rooms. When Maya Saterson ’22 arrived on campus Aug. 28, only two of her items were in her room — her mirror and her fridge. 

“I was thinking ‘oh, maybe they’re not here because I’m really annoying because I had 28 items,’” Saterson said. “But I was trying to be very patient because I appreciate how much the school is doing and how much was on their plate… They were helpful, it just took a while.”

Because Middlebury’s reopening plan required students to quarantine in their rooms until their Day Zero Covid-19 test came back negative, students without belongings had few options on the first day. 

Once released to campus quarantine, students were still not allowed to go into town throughout Phase One, therefore many missing items could not be replaced. The college provided some supplies to students without belongings but not all students were aware of the option, and others were simply unable to get them.

“I reached out initially to my [Community Assistant] and he was very helpful. He said that he would reach out to facilities and everyone, and also he got me sheets and a pillow and a towel,” Saterson said. 

Keith noted that the process could have been more organized. 

“When students first left, we probably should have gone through each room and written down an inventory, which we did eventually but not when we first had to consolidate rooms,” Keith said.

In the days after students arrived, staff worked to get the undelivered items to dorm rooms. Saterson got permission to pick up her boxes and move them herself from Nelson Arena on Saturday, Sept. 5 — more than a week after she arrived — but staff members ultimately delivered them to her on Friday night.