Custodial staff face increase in items left behind by departing students


Montse Landeros Cabrera

Manager of Custodial Services Nestor Carranza said Emerson hired five additional temporary employees from night cleaning companies.

By Ann E. Matica, Deputy News Editor

In the scramble to vacate campus two weeks ago as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in Massachusetts, students left behind more items in residential building lobbies and dorm rooms than previous semesters, according to a college official. 

“It was blocking some entrances and it was a safety issue and we just had to get [the lobbies] cleaned up,” Duncan Pollock, assistant vice president of facilities and campus services, said in a phone interview. 

Manager of Custodial Services Nestor Carranza said Emerson had to hire five additional temporary employees from night cleaning companies to handle the refrigerators, clothes, microwaves, and other belongings left behind.

However, the quantity of items left behind is just part of the problem—the COVID-19 outbreak also presents the unique challenge of treating items as if they potentially carry traces of the virus, Pollock told The Beacon.

COVID-19 can remain on items made of copper for up to four hours, 24 hours on cardboard, and up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel surfaces, according to a new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine. There have been no findings yet on how long the coronavirus can live on fabrics.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wash their clothing with the warmest water setting appropriate for the items if contact has been made with an ill person.  

The Office of Housing and Residential Education is handling the items left behind, determining case-by-case what to do with them. 

“What we are finding is there’s much more items left behind in rooms now, so we are working with housing, because the cleaning staff can’t make the decision to differentiate what should be kept and what shouldn’t be kept,” Pollock said. “We are going to go through room by room with housing to make that determination, and housing is going to come up with a plan on what to do with the stuff that is left behind.”

Emerson typically donates items left behind at the end of the academic year to Grad Bag, a company that collects donations from college students and re-distributes them to low-income students about to attend college for the first time. Grad bag refused to accept clothes as donations this year because of concerns due to the COVID-19 outbreak, however, Pollock said the company will still take refrigerators, microwaves and small electronics.

The custodial department threw all clothing and small items left behind in dorm building lobbies into the three trash compactors located in Piano Row, Paramount Center and the Tufte Center loading docks. 

Electronic items the college plans to donate will stay in storage at the college until the stay-at-home advisory set by Gov. Charlie Baker last week comes to an end on April 7, or later if the advisory is lengthened, according to Pollock. 

The cleaning of the five residential building common areas began last Wednesday, with only a few common spaces left to clean in Piano Row this week. 

Pollock said the custodial department’s first priority was to clean out dorm rooms in the 2 Boylston Place building for students staying on campus to live in.

“We are trying to get [students] all into one building, which is 2 Boylston Place,” he said. “We also want to get them into rooms that they can have an individual bath in case anybody presents as sick.”

The college hired five temporary employees to join the 16 custodial staff members, bringing the number of workers in charge of cleaning the campus to a total of 21 people.

“Last week the full force of employees was on,” Pollock said. “This week we went to having four or five employees [per shift] as opposed to close to [21]. We don’t have the cleaning staff that we typically have on because we don’t want everybody working together. So there’s a reduced number of people everyday.” 

Along with having fewer employees work per shift, the protocol for the staff has shifted dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Custodial employees are now required to wear personal protection equipment such as gloves and masks while cleaning. Carranza said employees also must use Clorox Total 360 machines to sanitize dorm rooms before and after deep cleaning them, which will lengthen the entire cleaning process.

The college purchased an additional Clorox Total 360 machine because of the pandemic, Pollock said, bringing the total number of units to four. Custodial staff uses the machines daily to clean classrooms, common areas, and the gym when students, faculty, and staff are on campus. 

“[The Clorox Total 360] gets all the hard [and] soft surfaces covered and coronavirus is one of the things that it takes care of,” Pollock said. “Now as we go into the rooms going forward the virus can only survive for so long so there will be less and less of a chance of that.” 

Aside from 2 Boylston Place rooms, which the staff has already disinfected with the Clorox Total 360, Carranza expects that the cleaning staff will begin sanitizing the rest of the 2 Boylston Place rooms and residence hall dorms starting next Monday. 

Now that the campus is all but empty, staff have five extra weeks to clean for summer classes that are still scheduled to begin in June, Pollock said. However, he added that dealing with the amount left behind by students may continue to be an unexpected challenge.

“Everywhere is the same. Everywhere,” Carranza said. “And because students had to leave right away, this year [is] even worse than last year.”